In 2001 Tuymans represented Belgium at the Venice Biennale, producing a new body of work called Mwana Kitoko - Beautiful White Man which addressed the legacy of Belgian imperial rule in the Congo and the murder of Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba was the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the independent Republic of Congo in 1960. He later became caught in the struggle between East and West for African domination during the Cold War, and his brutal murder in 1961 has been linked to the CIA and the Belgian Government.

Luc Tuymans Leopoldville 2000

Luc Tuymans
Leopoldville 2000
Ake Skeppner
© The artist, courtesy Zeno X Gallery and David Zwirner, New York. Photo credit: Felix Tirry.

Tuymans has chosen to present three paintings from this series but deliberately omits two key works: a portrait of Lumumba and an image of Baudouin I, the Belgian King, on a state visit to Congo in 1955. Baudouin is the ‘Beautiful White Man’ of the title. Typically, the works on display do not address the historical events directly and instead present oblique, side-stepped images. The celebrations of Independence Day in June 1960 seem to be the subject of Leopoldville 2000, which shows a Congolese national flag draped on a modernist building and people leaning from a balcony, as if looking over a street procession. In Leopard 2000, Tuymans focuses on the ceremonial leopard skin which is used as a symbol of power in the Congo; Tuymans depicts the moment immediately after the King has stepped onto the rug which marks his kingship. In the third painting, Tsjombe 2000, the Katagan opposition leader thought to have carried out Lumumba’s killing, is shown sitting at ease among a group of political bureaucrats.

Tuymans averts any explicit reading of the historical events through these incidental details, and only offers indirect hints at violence or the corruption of power. He reveals instead that history is a complex web of unreliable and disparate pieces of information. The Lumumba images are combined with Orchid 1998, and the earlier triptych Ice I, II, III 1992, in which each painting depicts an isolated and apparently unrelated object. In this room Tuymans seems to suggest that objects - buildings, tables, rugs, gloves - are the true but silent witnesses of past events.