The Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium, is to create an ethical “plan of action” for hosting events after a music festival held in its grounds saw guests arrive in racist and offensive costumes.
The Afrohouse-themed electronic DJ event was staged by the events company Thé Dansant on 4 August to celebrate its 10th birthday. It attracted around 3,000 people.
Photos circulated by the company on social media showed one white guest wearing blackface and others dressed in grass skirts, facepaint and bone necklaces.
Another party-goer was pictured wearing a safari outfit and pith helmet. The picture of the man in blackface was later deleted by Thé Dansant.
The photos attracted widespread condemnation, with Café Congo, a Congolese-Belgian art collective, writing on Facebook: “Explain to me how this kind of event still exists in 2019 at the Africa Museum? Is the administration or its communications team on Xanax?”
Other criticism of the event came from Dominique Day, the vice chair of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, who has been quoted as saying: "It’s important to understand this is not an Africa-themed event — this is a colonisation-themed event.
"This party involves you getting excited about immersing yourself in cultural stereotypes. It’s a glorification of ways African bodies, resources, land, the lives of Africans were both stolen and exploited for individual gain and national gain."
The festival was held in Tervuren Park in the grounds of the museum, which is owned bv the Belgian Federal Buildings Agency. The museum has prior approval over events that take place in the park, and says it allowed the festival to go ahead on the condition that “at least half of the DJs had to be of African origin, and the organisers had to make efforts to avoid stereotypes”.
The museum says it also raised concerns about how Thé Dansant was planning to advertise the event, and asked it remove words like “ethnic”, “tribal”, and “voodoo” from its marketing.
In the end, the dress code was advertised as “la sape, colorful, wakanda, future african [sic]”. The museum distanced itself from the festival in advance, posting on Facebook that “it was not responsible for the event”.
According to the museum’s director, Guido Gryseels, the company has staged a number of events at the park in the past with no problems. These are usually held at a site half a kilometre away from the museum, but the Afrohouse festival was staged beside the museum building because of works taking place elsewhere.Speaking to Museums Journal, Gryseels said: “Although the Africa Museum was not the organiser, the location of the event – right near the main museum building, and thus a very historically loaded site – made Africa Museum an easy and obvious target of criticism.”
He said the museum regretted what had happened. “We certainly misjudged the dangers of allowing such an event near the museum building. We clearly had not informed the organisation well enough on the harmful and negative effects of stereotyping.
“Our officer in charge of relations with the African diaspora and myself visited the event briefly and noted nothing seriously amiss, other than buffalo skulls on the podium,” he added, saying that the people in offensive outfits “represented a very small minority of the attendees”.
Gryseels continued: “Only one person was stupid enough to paint his face black – and to be honest, none of the organisers or staff present at the event has personally seen this man – and a few more stressed the stereotypes by dressing up as safari-goers.
“Some 3,000 others enjoyed not only the music but also talked to each other and to the artists about the negative effects of the Belgian colonial history and its use of extreme violence and exploitation.”
Gryseels said that, in order to avoid similar situations arising in future, the Africa Museum is “currently drafting an ethical code that organisers must adhere to and agree to enforce, to obtain our authorisation for public activities”.
“This code will be developed in collaboration with representatives of the African diaspora in Belgium and staff members of African origin,” he said. “It will be approved by our management committee and become formal policy. We hope that it will be ready by next month.”
The Africa Museum was established by the Belgian king Leopold II to display the spoils of his brutal rule of Congo Free State. Prior to its recent redevelopment, the museum was known for its racist statues and glorification of empire.
It reopened at the end of last year after a five-year renovation, which included a museum-wide decolonisation project.