Thursday, December 17, 2015

Magenta Book Review: Elisabetta Benassi's King Leopold’s Soliloquy

Elisabetta Benassi
King Leopold’s Soliloquy
Rome, Italy: NERO, 2015
49 pp., 12 x 18.5 cm., softcover
$24.00 CDN
Edition of 500 copies

I reviewed one of my favourite artists' books of the year for the latest issue of Magenta Magazine:

For the 55th Venice Biennale, Elisabetta Benassi produced a large installation with a bookwork at its core, The Dry Salvages, which documented ten thousand items of space debris. Invited back two years later, this time as part of the Belgium Pavilion, she once again produced a project centred around an artists’ book.

The Belgian Pavilion was the first foreign Pavilion to be built in the Giardini in Venice, during the reign of King Leopold II. Somewhat lesser known than Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot, Leopold propagated the least-discussed genocide in history. He was responsible for the deaths of between two and fifteen million people, with many historians settling on ten million as a fair estimate.

In 1865, with the death of his father, Leopold became King of Belgium at the age of thirty. A decade later, he formed the International African Association, which fronted as a scientific, philanthropic and humanitarian organization, but whose eventual goal was to turn the Congo into Leopold’s own personal colony. A ‘finders fee’ was paid to explorer Henry Stanley (best known for uttering the greeting “Dr. Livingston, I presume”), who tricked hundreds of tribal chieftains to sign away their land. This gave Leopold unchecked power over a territory of almost a million square miles, nearly seventy times the size of Belgium. He named his colony the Congo Free State. It became, in the words of biographer Adam Hochschild, “the world’s only colony claimed by one man.”

The contracts were violently enforced and Leopold began enslaving the population and commandeering the natural resources. The Congolese were forced to work as miners, rubber-tappers, woodcutters and as porters, carrying elephant tusks through dangerous areas of the rainforest en route to seaports.

Villages were held hostage while the men were sent out to collect wild rubber, high in demand after the 1888 invention of the pneumatic tire. Upon their return, if the agents of the force publique (Leopold’s personal militia) were not satisfied with their haul, the men, women and children of the village would have their feet and hands amputated.

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