Summer 2022

Icons of oppression

Belgian graphic design and the colonisation of Congo. By Sara De Bondt [EXTRACT]

Poster for Colonial Days: Under the high patronage of His Majesty the King, 1924, courtesy Collection KMMA, Tervuren.

On 30 June 2020, the statue of King Leopold II was removed from the Zuidpark in Ghent. A few weeks earlier, other statues were vandalised or removed in Brussels and Antwerp. In recent years, the Belgian colonisation of Congo has once again come under the spotlight. Today, this decolonising movement is accelerating as part of a global reassessment of the continuing impact of colonialism.

Decolonisation is also increasingly being discussed in graphic design. In 1998 Sylvia Harris wrote: ‘Black designers are working at a disadvantage when they do not feel a kinship with existing design traditions and also have no evidence of an alternative African or African-American design tradition upon which to base their work.’

More recent initiatives point to the considerable work that still needs to be done – think of Silas Munro’s online lecture series ‘BIPOC Design History’; the platform Decolonising Design by Danah Abdulla, Ahmed Ansari and others; the online Decolonizing Design Reader by Ramon Tejada; or the exhibition ‘As, Not For: Dethroning Our Absolutes’ by Jerome Harris (see Eye 100). So it was essential that the subject should be included in the overview of Belgian design history of which this essay is part. (Off the Grid, Histories of Belgian graphic design, published by Occasional Papers, 2022.)

What was the role of Belgian graphic designers in the colonisation of Congo between 1885 and 1960? …

Poster for Loterie Coloniale, which reads: ‘Fortune is grabbed by the hair … by buying a colonial lottery ticket.’ Designed by Jean Dratz, 1935. Top. Poster for Colonial Days: Under the high patronage of His Majesty the King, 1924, courtesy Collection KMMA, Tervuren. Joseph van den Bergh’s duotone poster uses the widely recognisable image of the late Belgian monarch, Leopold II (1835–1909), as a ‘logo’ for colonisation.

Poster for Loterie Coloniale

Sara De Bondt, graphic designer and publisher, London and Ghent.

Read the full version in Eye no. 103 vol. 26, 2022

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.