Research project: Congo Panorama
In 2022 the War Heritage Institute and three international partners from the FILM EU consortium (Lusófona University, Portugal; LUCA School of Arts, Belgium and the Institute for Art, Design + Technology, Ireland) launched a project focusing on the Congo Panorama. The study, entitled Decolonizing the Panorama of Congo. A Virtual Heritage Artistic Research (CONGO VR), is managed by the academic partners, and aims to contextualize and reinterpret the virtual reality panorama from the perspective of decolonization.
Belgian colonial authorities commissioned the Congo Panorama for the 1913 World Fair in Ghent, where some 500,000 visitors came to admire it. The monumental canvas measured 115 x 14 m and was designed by Paul Mathieu (1872-1932) and Alfred Bastien (1873-1955). A circular arrangement, a faux-terrain and optical distortions provided visitors with the illusion of reality. The canvas was shown for the last time at the 1935 World Fair in Brussels. The Military Museum has been safeguarding it in its entirety since the 1950s, contrary to what many urban legends try to make believe.
In eight seamlessly juxtaposed scenes the work depicts life in and around the city of Matadi, with views of the Congo River, the market, the M’Pozo waterfalls and the tropical forest. The panorama highlights the Belgian civilisation offensive on the colony and thus serves propaganda purposes. Modern industry, shipping and trade are depicted against a backdrop of lush Congolese nature and exotic peoples.
Painting this monumental composition covering some 1,600 square metres required careful preparation. That is why Bastien and Mathieu undertook a study trip to Matadi in 1911 and made sketches galore. Some of these large gridded charcoal roughs are still preserved by the Africa Museum in Tervuren. A composition based on these drawings was then executed on canvas. Painting was done on site in Ghent, in the rotunda of the World Fair colonial pavilion. An extensive team led by Bastien and Mathieu used oils to create it. The painters were assisted by Philippe Swyncop for the market scenes, Armand Apol for the landscapes and Parisian painter Adrien Schultz for the skies, with Charles Swyncop and Charles Léonard lending a helping hand wherever needed. Almost a century later the bright colours and rhythmic composition still make for a unique splendour.
The giant canvas was rolled out in December 2022 and, for improved conservation, rolled back onto a new support replacing the original wooden one. The WHI Collections Department now also researches the artist’s working methods and iconographic selection.
By photographing the canvas and recreating it in a virtual reality environment based on archival and artistic research, the project preserves and valorises this heritage for future generations, in the context of multifaceted and polyphonic narratives of Europe’s colonial past. To present the Congo Panorama, CONGO-VR applies the concept of “virtual heritage”, which refers to the use of digital and virtual technologies to catalogue and transfer cultural heritage.