Laeken Découverte

the colonial pavillions at the Brussels Wolrd’s Fairs of 1935 and 1958.

Architectures, Collections, Representations

« Monuments, colonial fairs and exhibitions enabled colonial culture to persist and gain a long-term presence, partly through them. So although there may not have been much public discussion of this past in Belgium in the decades following the declaration of independence of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, this did not mean that all forms of colonial culture had disappeared. On the contrary, they displayed a quiet permanence that only began to be exposed to more open (cyclical) discussion in the 1990s. »
Report of the Experts of the Special Commission responsible for investigating the Congo Free State and Belgium’s past in the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, its consequences and the action that should be taken.

« The silence and cheers of the past still weigh on the present. »
Jean-Luc Vellut,  Belgian historian specialised in the Congo

The Belgian debate on colonisation and decolonisation has been launched at both the regional and national level.* As part of this, Urban.Brussels made 2022 the year of « Traces of colonisation », with a call for projects and Heritage Days devoted to this theme. This exhibition, devoted to the colonial pavilions at the 1935 and 1958 World’s Fairs, is part of this reflection on the decolonisation of minds and the public space.

Our project aims to tackle a live issue through an original, local lens. The colonial pavilions presented to the public at the two World’s Fairs at Heysel are unique and largely unexplored traces of colonialism and of a certain worldview. They are also part of an enduring Belgian « colonial culture ».

This exhibition aims to shed light on these pavilions, their collections and the representations conveyed by colonial Belgium.

Through these lost traces of heritage, we hope to contribute to the debate on colonisation and decolonisation in order to demystify, better understand and deconstruct the representations specific to an era. We want to raise awareness of the issue among people of all generations, and thereby fight discrimination and stereotypes through a better understanding of history.

This exhibition is also designed to be travelling, permanent and evolving. The subject is vast, opening up new fields of research and discovery every day.

Enjoy your visit!

The Laeken Découverte team

* Resolution aimed at initiating the decolonisation of the public space as part of a process of dialogue and remembrance at regional level, and special commission charged with examining Belgium’s colonial past at federal level.

From the mid-19th century, in the wake of the industrial revolution, there was a succession of World’s Fairs in Europe and the Western world. In practice, these general or more specialised events had a commercial and industrial dimension, but also an artistic, cultural and often colonial one.

The participating countries presented themselves in the form of pavilions, veritable showcases of national pride. They bear witness to an era and a worldview which is first and foremost that of Western societies. These « monuments, colonial fairs and exhibitions enabled colonial culture to persist and gain a long-term presence, partly through them » (1).

Until 1958, World’s Fairs were therefore an opportunity for the colonial powers to feature a colonial section or pavilions as vehicles for propaganda and representation. They also sanctioned « racial superiority and Western domination over the rest of the world, particularly the colonies » (2).

In total, Belgium would host ten of these major events. The 1935 and 1958 editions were held at the Heysel Plateau in Brussels. Belgium before and after the war was presented to the world, including its colonies, which it celebrated with pomp. It did this through a staging that combined authenticity and modernity and pursued two main objectives: to convince the mainland of the merits of colonisation and to demonstrate Belgium’s « civilising work » in the Congo and Ruanda-Urundi.

(1) Report of the Experts of the Special Commission [of the Belgian Federal Parliament] responsible for investigating the Congo Free State and Belgium’s past in the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, its consequences and the action that should be taken.
(2) S. Jaumain and W. Balcers, Bruxelles 1910. De l’exposition universelle à l’Université.

List of World’s Fairs organised in Belgium
Antwerp (1894), Brussels (1897), Liège (1905), Brussels (1910), Ghent (1913), Antwerp and Liège (1930), Brussels (1935), Liège (1939), Brussels (1958).

The Belgian colonies
The Congo Free State (1885-1908), later the Belgian Congo (1908-1960). The Ruanda-Urundi region (territory of the future Rwanda and Burundi) was administratively united with the Belgian Congo from 1925. Rwanda and Burundi became independent in 1962.

The Brussels World’s Fair of 1935 (27 April – 3 November) followed directly on from the colonial and maritime exhibition in Antwerp and the technology exhibition in Liège in 1930, organised to mark Belgium’s centenary.

Despite the economic crisis of the 1930s, audacity and the desire for prestige prevailed in celebrating two major milestones in official Belgian history: the centenary of the first railway line in Belgium and the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the Congo Free State. The themes of the exhibition would therefore be transport and colonisation.

The gamble paid off and the event was a huge success: in all, more than 20 million visitors flocked to Heysel to discover the 450 pavilions built there and the 30 participating nations.

Often overlooked, the 1935 World’s Fair left a major mark on Heysel. In particular, it kick-started the development and urbanisation of the Plateau, with the construction of the stadium (now the King Baudouin Stadium) and the halls known as the Palaces (Brussels Expo).

The colonial statues of Palace 5
The base of the façade of Palace 5 is adorned with two sets of statues honouring the
« national activities ». Among them, a work by Léandre Grandmoulin (1873-1957) embodies colonisation. The Belgian Congo is represented by a woman carrying the torch of knowledge and rescuing a black child from illiteracy. The group on the right by Égide Rombaux (1865-1942) represents a victorious Belgium in 1930, with a young Congolese man following behind.

The Belgian colonial section took pride of place at the 1935 World’s Fair, between the new Palaces and the new stadium.

The colonial pavilions were arranged around a wide « esplanade of the Congo ». Visitors reached it via the Avenue Coloniale (Colonial Avenue), an extension of the Avenue des Belges (Avenue of the Belgians). They were greeted by a large elephant, behind which stood the Official Congo Pavilion, preceded by a bust of Leopold II. Around the esplanade, there were also two rows of « African huts », where « natives sold exotic objects made before the eyes of the visitors ».

To the left of the esplanade, the Private Colonial Companies Pavilion was located just behind a restaurant called « Léopold II », built on behalf of the Société Auxiliaire de Propagande Coloniale (Auxiliary Company for Colonial Propaganda). This « SOPROCOL », a group of private entrepreneurs, finally had its own pavilion to the right of the esplanade.

The idea of highlighting the participation of private companies in the colonial project was also in response to a budgetary issue: official participants had to work with a « very modest » budget, given the economic crisis. In the Official Pavilion, many of the exhibits had already been displayed at previous colonial exhibitions in Antwerp and Vincennes (Paris).

The Congo Pavilion attracted over 3 million visitors.

« Belgian Congo dominates the exhibition »
It was under this headline that the « Congophile » journalist Guy-Denys Périer wrote delightedly that « after ten centuries of colonisation, the magnificent Congolese city towering over the exhibition appears as the bold crowning achievement of the Belgian genius which has annexed a colonial empire… » (Mémorial de l’Exposition de Bruxelles (Memoir of the Brussels World’s Fair) in the Almanach illustré du Soir, 1936)

The Elephant of Tervuren
The esplanade in front of the Official Pavilion was marked by a gigantic elephant, ridden by 4 warrior-hunters. This work by animal sculptor Albéric Collin (1886-1962) would be installed in Tervuren after the exhibition.

This 2,000 m² building was designed by René Schoentjes (1891-1949), consultant architect to the Ministry of the Colonies. The style was hybrid, both modern and imbued with forms considered traditional, just like the sudden breaks in rhythm « characteristic of African art ».

With a European eye, Schoentjes was trying to « invent » an African architecture intended above all to attract visitors and take them on a journey. The exotic typography of the large « CONGO » at the top of the pavilion’s 34-metre tower was in line with this.

Inside, visitors entered a cathedral-like reception room whose walls were draped in fabrics reminiscent of « Kasaï velvet ». Shields and spears adorned the four corners of the room. An ivory bust of King Leopold III welcomed the public.

The Pavilion was then organised around eight halls designed to « give the public an understanding of the organisation of our Congo and the moral and philanthropic efforts made there: missions, schools, hygiene, etc. » Several dioramas, models, graphics and an illuminated map were used for this purpose.

At the intersection of these halls, a large room featured a collection of (Western) works of art inspired by the Belgian Congo. A bust of King Albert I commemorated the King’s creation of the triennial prize for colonial literature in 1922. The winning works were displayed in showcases. The same is true of L’éléphant qui marche sur des oeufs (The Elephant That Walks on Eggs) by Thadée Badibanga, the first African author of French-language tales to win a prize from the Académie française in 1932.

A unanimous press
The colonial consensus that prevailed in the 1930s was reflected in the press of the time (and of all persuasions). In 1935, there was no question of the press challenging colonialism and its representation at the World’s Fair. The colonial section was thus seen by journalists as a must-see attraction « for adventure-seekers, businessmen and missionaries, but also for artists interested in the exotic » (journalist and politician Louis Piérard in Le Peuple, 11 May 1935).

The Private Colonial Companies Pavilion

Designed as an outdoor extension of the Official Pavilion, the Colonial Companies Pavilion covered an area of 1,300 m². This « vast Congolese hut » was also the work of René Schoentjes, this time in association with the architect Douret.

« The Pavilion as a whole was a striking illustration of the remarkable results achieved in the Congo by private initiative ». The mining industry featured prominently, with representation from Union Minière du Haut-Katanga (the Mining Union of Haut-Katanga), the Kilo-Moto mining company, and Forminière (Société Internationale Forestière et Minière du Congo – International Forestry and Mining Company of the Congo).

The SOPROCOL Pavilion: « Africa awaits you »

The SOPROCOL Pavilion was designed by Victor Bourgeois (1897-1962), a leading figure in Belgian modernism. Here again, the façade is decorated in a style inspired by geometric and colourful « African » embellishments. At 3,500 m², it was the largest of the colonial pavilions at the 1935 exhibition.

« Africa awaits you » is the message displayed above the entrance. A « Hall of Tourism » introduced visitors to the full potential of tourism in the Congo.

The first tourist guide to the Congo was published in 1934. 1935 also marked the start of SABENA scheduled flights between Belgium and the Congo. The emphasis was on both exoticism and modernity. Products from the colony were also given pride of place, particularly at the « Café du Congo ».

However, the main « attraction » of the pavilion was still the juxtaposition of the
« Panorama du Congo » by Paul Mathieu (1872-1932) and Alfred Bastien (1873-1955), already exhibited in Ghent in 1913, with dioramas produced under the direction of James Thiriar (1889-1965), following a scientific mission to the Ruwenzori in 1932.

The « Léopold II » restaurant
At the edge of the colonial section, SOPROCOL also built the Léopold II restaurant, designed by Victor Bourgeois, which served « connoisseurs its colonial dishes, in particular the famous moambe chicken » (Official Guide).

Authentic and exotic decorations by Congolese painters
Founded in 1935, the Commission pour la protection des arts et métiers indigènes (Commission for the Protection of Native Arts and Crafts) presented a number of works by African artists in the Colonial Companies Pavilion (rather than in the arts room of the Official Pavilion). But the walls of the Café du Congo and the Léopold II restaurant also displayed the frescoes of Congolese painters and colourists, such as Albert Lubaki (1895-?) and Tshela Tendu (1880-1950). These were pioneers of modern Congolese art, along with Antoinette Lubaki (1895-?), Massalai or Pilipili Mulongoy (1914-2007) whose works will be unveiled at Expo 58.

The Brussels World’s Fair of 1958 (17 April – 19 October) – or Expo 58 – captured the minds and imaginations of the time. The first major world’s fair after the war, it was widely publicised, merchandised and commented on.

More than 40 countries took part, including recently decolonised African nations (Morocco, Tunisia, Sudan and Egypt). International organisations created after the war were also represented: Benelux, the European Coal and Steel Community (the future European Union), the Council of Europe and Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (the forerunner of the OECD) and the United Nations Organisation (UNO).

Just 13 years after the end of the Second World War, the Expo slogan « Evaluation of the world for a more humane world » spread a message of optimism, cooperation, peace and progress. At the heart of the Expo, this faith in the future was symbolised by the Atomium.

However, hopes were tempered by the context of the Cold War. Belgium was also on the brink of profound upheaval. In 1960, it lost its colony in the chaos and experienced a serious socio-economic crisis and a general strike. It was also the beginning of the end for a unitary Belgium, undermined by federalist pressures.

More than 41 million people visited Expo 58, including 80% of the Belgian population.

Expo 58 featured a grand celebration of the 50th anniversary of Belgium’s annexation of the Congo. The huge section (eight hectares) devoted to the Congo and Ruanda-Urundi enjoyed a privileged and strategic location, close to the Atomium. As in 1935, a separate section was chosen to act as a « link between the Belgian and foreign sections » of the Expo. In 1958, however, the space occupied by the colonial section was far smaller than in 1935.

Chief architect Maurice Houyoux (1903-1960) was responsible for the layout and architectural coherence of the entire section. Seven pavilions, all modern in style, were built between the Avenue du Congo, Avenue du Ruanda and Avenue de l’Urundi. With this unprecedented display, Belgium was seeking above all to justify the modernity of the « progressive colonialism » it was deploying in the Congo. Confident in a shared future – yet to be defined – with the Congo, Belgium thus presented a « model colony ». This was its attempt to avoid clashing head-on with the Expo’s humanist message.

At a time when the decolonisation of Asia and Africa had begun, Belgian self-satisfaction and paternalism, tinged at times with openness to African otherness and at other times with degradation of it, appeared completely anachronistic.

For the vast majority of Belgians, the colonial section of Expo 58 was the place of first (and last) contact with Congolese otherness. This encounter was to influence the colonial culture of many generations.

« The colonists in the Congo have achieved true humanism, and when you have been a coloniser like Belgium (…), you have reason to be proud » (Georges Moens de Fernig, Commissioner General of Expo 58)

« Seven palaces show you the various faces of this vast land marked by the seal of a country eighty times smaller than itself. Can we not hope, given the results achieved, for an exceptionally balanced future? Follow the lines of the seven palaces and you will see that man is never absent – the black man and the white man collaborating on the same work, drawing from the same source of art, science and spirit. It is impossible for this not to last… » (Jacques Dumont in the Official Programme)


Designed by the architect Georges Ricquier (1902-1963), the Government Palace had a 150-metre long façade. At its corner, a 36-metre totem pole decorated with a geometric pattern marked the beginning of the colonial section.

In the entrance hall, a bust of Leopold II welcomed visitors, accompanied by the king’s famous quote: « I have undertaken the work of the Congo in the interest of civilisation ». At the back of the hall, the wall was completely covered by an imposing 30 x 10 metre fresco by Floris Jespers (1889-1965), entitled « Synthèse du Congo belge » (Synthesis of the Belgian Congo).

Because this was indeed an evaluation and a synthesis of 50 years of « Belgian management ». Various themed rooms conveyed a message of development and progress, while emphasising harmony and collaboration between the colonisers and the colonised in the Congo, in the spirit of a « Belgian-Congolese community ».

Within the Palace, the « group for the Arts and their means of expression » occupied an important place. The intent was to present « the contribution of the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi to the artistic heritage of humanity ». For the first time, the « traditional » and modern arts of the Congo (sculpture, music, dance, literature, painting) were recognised as unique and distinct, sometimes emphasising the European contribution, sometimes the need to evolve without influence. The Belgian artists on display had also often travelled to the Congo.

Alongside numerous maps, dioramas and models, the Congorama was the « one-of-a-kind » attraction at the Congo Palace. In a true multimedia environment before its time, 200 visitors could relive « the major stages that led the Congo from the darkness of prehistory to the light of civilisation ». According to official figures, the Congorama welcomed 200,000 spectators.

A 300-seat cinema, a café and a restaurant, « where Congolese waiters present African specialities », completed the spaces.

The « mutual duties of blacks and whites »
« The various presentations of this palace have avoided dwelling on a portrayal of the Congo of days gone by or on the reconstruction of picturesque pavilions that bear no relation to the way people live today. On the contrary, the emphasis is on making blacks and whites aware of their mutual duties. It shows how the meeting of the two races took place and continues today, without hiding the current and future difficulties. » (Memoir of Expo 58)

The Agriculture Pavilion (by architect Yvan Blomme) reflected on advances in crop and livestock farming. The exploitation of resources such as coffee, cocoa and rubber plants was also covered, as were fishing and hunting.

The Construction, Energy and Transport Pavilion (by architects Jordan & Donnay) showcased the modernity of infrastructure in the Congo. Major future projects were mentioned, including a model of the Inga dam, a « monumental » project to be completed by 1968.

The luxurious Mining and Metallurgy Pavilion (by architects Delcourt & De Nayer) celebrated the riches of the Congolese soil and the intense industrial activity of the Belgian Congo, while emphasising the « social achievements » of the mining companies. In front of the pavilion was the « Bantu couple » sculpture by Arthur Dupagne (1895-1961).

At the Banking, Insurance and Trade Pavilion (by architects Spinnael & Stiénon), 170 small robotic figures animated a model representing « the small world of a native market ».

The Wildlife Pavilion (by architect Constantin Brodzki) had a striking dome and was an original building with no natural light. Stuffed animals from the Congo were posed under artificial lighting.

Finally, the Catholic Missions Pavilion (by architects Julien & Yvan De Ridder) presented the « work of evangelisation, civilisation, well-being and hygiene » of the missions in Africa. Two statues by Congolese artist Ladislas Karama guarded the entrance. They represented motherhood and a father protecting his young child.

Each of these pavilions focused specifically on « showing the progress made », for the benefit of
the local populations.

The Congo at the Atomium
In 1958, the entrance area of Brussels’ most famous building hosted a presentation by the « Belgian-Congolese Nuclear Energy » group. The civil and peaceful applications of the atom were highlighted, but 13 years earlier, it was from the Shinkolobwe mine in the Belgian Congo that the uranium for the Hiroshima bomb had been extracted… to the great benefit of Belgium and its reconstruction.

Since the deaths of the Congolese people in the human zoo at the World’s Fair in 1897, colonial Belgium had been wary of organising such a human exhibition again. Yet that’s what the country chose to do more than 60 years later, at Expo 58. A dozen Congolese artisans were penned up in a « Congolese village » (or « native village ») to work or go about their daily business.

Adjacent to the Tropical Garden, the village was surrounded by a fence to prevent any communication or contact with visitors. But at the end of July, faced with the lack of respect and rudeness of the visitors who came to « look at the Negroes » and throw bananas at them, the Congolese people took action. The village was closed and the artisans returned to the Congo.

Several outraged articles appeared in the press following this « incident in the Congolese section ». The official version is very different with barely concealed embarrassment: the presence of the Congolese people was in fact meant to be temporary.

The Congolese village single-handedly represents the ambiguity of the colonial message at Expo 58: proclaiming the modernity of the Belgian Congo, while regularly using primitive and picturesque images in contrast. Colonial Belgium thus justified the continuation of a work still unfinished.

The native village at Expo 58 also claimed one victim: an infant, Juste Bonaventure Langa. Born on 26 September 1957 in Léopoldville, he died on 22 May 1958. His grave is in Tervuren Cemetery and bears the epitaph: « Exposition Universelle 1958 / Congo pense à toi » (« World’s Fair 1958 / The Congo is thinking of you »).

An outraged press
« We know why the Congolese village at the World’s Fair is deserted today. Its inhabitants have returned to Africa with a less than glowing impression of certain visitors to Heysel.
Didn’t we go so far as to throw bananas at the Congolese artisans as if they were the residents of a zoo? There is a lot of talk about educating black people. Perhaps we should be concerned about the education of some of our compatriots. And why was it necessary to set up this Congolese village at a time when these types of settlements are rapidly disappearing to make way for increasingly modern villages? » (Le Soir, 31 July 1958)
« They came to us to show us, innocently and naively, how they live and work. We went to see it with the brutality, defiant pedantry and selfishness that characterise modern life, and the black people were
deeply appalled. It is also safe to say that these artists and artisans will have taken away only a faint idea of the « evaluation of a more humane world » and that they will be rather disappointed about white people and their feelings towards them.
We, the public, have forgotten that the black man also has a heart and has pride, and that he wants to be something other than an object of curiosity and a fairground item. This deplorable misunderstanding is just another harbinger of the disappointments that await us in the Congo, but we only have ourselves to blame. » (Article in De Standaard, quoted by La Libre Belgique on 27 July 1958)

Pechère’s « Tropical Garden »
« The art of gardening is always the result of a civilisation. » Based on this principle, the renowned landscape architect René Pechère (1908-2002) created this Congolese tropical garden, inspired as much by the Orient as by African motifs, and planted with European species.

Timeline (1930-1960)

– 1931: Pende revolt against exploitation by the oil companies. Several hundred people were killed in the repression. With the economic crisis of the 1930s, the colonial order is also challenged in Kwilu, Kantanga, Kivu and Ruanda-Urundi.

– 1935: Although forced labour is officially abolished, the authorities require all Congolese to perform 60 days of compulsory labour per year (120 days from 1942).

– 1939-1945: Belgian Congo takes part in the war effort, which puts a heavy burden on the local population. Strikes and mutinies break out.

– 24 October 1945: The United Nations is founded and the Charter of the United Nations is drafted, establishing the « principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples ».

– 1946: Governor General Pierre Ryckmans considers that « the days of colonialism are over ». The first Congolese trade union is created.

– 1947: Creation of the Indigenous Welfare Fund.

– 1948: Creation of the « civic merit card » giving a few extra freedoms to “advanced” Congolese.

– 1949: A ten-year plan focuses on the development of the Congo’s economy and infrastructure, without giving any thought to the emancipation of the Congolese people.

– 1950: Joseph Kasavubu’s Abako (Alliance des Bakongo) is founded. The association became a political party (radical federalist) in 1955.

– 1952: Creation of the « registration card », whose Congolese holders enjoy (in principle) the civil rights accorded to Belgians. The Europeanisation of the lifestyle of those « registered » was subject to in-depth verification by the authorities.

– 1953: Concept of a « Belgian-Congolese Community » launched by Governor General Léon Pétillon.

– 1954: Creation of Lovanium, the first Congolese university (33 students enrolled in the first year). The same year, the official education system was introduced in the Congo.

– 18 April 1955: Opening of the Bandoeng Conference, which brings together 29 newly independent, « non-aligned » nations calling for the decolonisation and emancipation of the peoples of Africa and Asia.

– May-June 1955: King Baudouin makes his first trip to the Congo.

– December 1955: Professor Jef Van Bilsen publishes his « Thirty-year plan for the political emancipation of Belgian Africa », which envisages Congolese independence by 1985, within a Belgian-Congolese confederation.

– July-August 1956: publication of the « Manifeste » of Conscience africaine, which takes up the contents of the « Thirty-Year Plan ». Abako drafts a « Countre-manifeste » calling for independence.

– December 1957: communal elections in the Congo, limited to Léopoldville (Kinshasa), Élisabethville (Lubumbashi) and Jadotville (Likasi). Only men over the age of 21 can vote.

– July 1958: Colonial Minister Léon Pétillon sets up the « Working Group » responsible for examining the political future of the Belgian Congo. This body does not include any Congolese representatives.

– 24 August 1958: speech by General De Gaulle in Brazzaville (French colony). « … Anyone who wants independence will be able to take it immediately. The homeland will not oppose it ».

– 4 October 1958: Moïse Tshombe founds Conakat (Confédération des associations tribales du Katanga, a moderate federalist party).

– 10 October 1958: Patrice Lumumba founds the MNC (Mouvement national congolais National Movement, a radical unitary party).

– 8 December 1958: Start of the Pan-African Conference in Accra. Patrice Lumumba attends. The tone hardens, and immediate independence becomes a demand.

– 4 January 1959: riots break out in Leopoldville with cries of « Dipanda » (« Independence »). They were put down in bloodshed, with dozens of people killed. Joseph Kasavubu is arrested.

– 13 January 1959: declaration by the Belgian government and speech by King Baudouin. « Our firm resolution today is to lead the Congolese people to independence in prosperity and peace, without any disastrous procrastination, but without any ill-considered haste ».

– May 1959: Patrice Lumumba lectures in Belgium on « the Congo of tomorrow ».

– October-November 1959: MNC congress in Stanleyville (Kisangani). Repression of supporters of Patrice Lumumba, who is arrested.

– December 1959: King Baudouin travels to the Belgian Congo and general communal elections are held. These are boycotted by the Abako and the MNC.

– January-February 1960: « Round Table » on the future of the Congo. This conference brought together Belgian representatives and even more Congolese who, despite their differences, presented a common front. They secured Patrice Lumumba’s release and visit to Brussels, and set a date for Congo’s independence: 30 June 1960.

– April-May 1960: second « Round Table » on economic issues. Belgium secured its economic interests at the expense of the Republic of Congo. Public companies are privatised, while private companies in the Congo repatriate their headquarters to Brussels.

– May 1960: First legislative and provincial elections in the Congo. 30 parties share 137 seats. Patrice Lumumba’s MNC comes out on top (33 seats), although no single party obtains an absolute majority.

– 23 June 1960: Patrice Lumumba becomes Prime Minister of the first Congolese government. Joseph Kasavubu is elected head of state.

Alongside the artisans from the « native village », several hundred Congolese men, women and children passed through Expo 58. The presence of so many Africans in Brussels was a first. Colonial Belgium took care to invite so-called « advanced » Congolese people, a term used to designate Congolese people with a certain level of education and living a European lifestyle. This new African « middle class » was proof of the benefits of the Belgian coloniser, who could have full confidence in it.

Most of the Congolese civilians were housed at the « CAPA » (Reception Centre for African Staff) in Tervuren, which offered them all services. Outside the exhibition, travel in Belgium and contacts with Belgians were closely monitored.

380 Africans were employed in the colonial pavilions, as guides or simply to carry out the work they usually did in the Congo. At the Catholic Missions Pavilion, a large number of Congolese clergy welcomed visitors.

A large contingent of Congolese soldiers from the Force Publique (the Belgian Congo’s military and police force) travelled to Brussels, mainly in a representative role. They marched in particular for the official Congo Day (1 July 1958) and Belgian National Day.

The organisers of Expo 58 also invited seven Congolese painters to create various frescoes to decorate the pavilions in the colonial section. Among them Mwenze Kibwanga (1925-1999), one of the leading figures of the modern Congolese school.

The seven Congolese painters at Expo 58

The artists Joseph Kabongo, Célestin Kabuya, Floribert Mwembia and Mwenze Kibwanga represents the Académie des Beaux-Arts of Élisabethville, led by Laurent Moonens. The Académie of Léopoldville, under the direction of Victor Wallenda, has sent Charles Kalema, Clément Mutombo and Ferdinand Mbambu (standing on the picture, coll. Archives générales du Royaume).

120 dancers and musicians from the Congo and Ruanda-Urundi made up the troupe « Changwe Yetu » (« Our greatest celebration for all of us »), an ethnic ballet that performed in numerous shows throughout Belgium. The « Missa Luba » sung by the young singers of the « Troubadours du Roi Baudouin » choir remained engraved on records and the memories of audiences. In both cases, however, management was in the hands of a Belgian.

Two Congolese speakers also presented programmes on Radio Congo Belge. Several Congolese journalists travelled to Brussels for the Colonial Press Congress. Among them were future leading Congolese politicians: Patrice Lumumba (Indépendance), Joseph Mobutu (L’Avenir), Joseph Ileo (Conscience africaine) and Évariste Kimba (L’Essor du Congo). The Belgian press also reported on every visit by traditional chiefs or Mwamis (kings) of Ruanda and Urundi.

Finally, several dozen Congolese people were in Belgium to « play tourist » at Expo 58.

« Free the Congolese of Tervueren »
« It is deplorable that the Congolese civilians who came to Belgium for the Expo were literally penned up in Tervueren and surrounded by a « cordon sanitaire » to prevent them from coming into contact with the Belgians. Yet these are workers – often what we call ‘advanced’… » (Article in the Communist newspaper Le Drapeau rouge, 1 August 1958)

For many historians, Expo 58 was a major milestone in the Congo’s rapid march towards independence.

It is true that the exhibition was a great place for the Congolese people to meet and have discussions. Their accounts revealed their astonishment at a world where Belgians worked hard, did not enjoy privileged status and could also be welcoming.

At the Expo, Congolese intellectuals made contacts in Belgian political and trade union circles. The international nature of the exhibition also enabled them to meet other visitors from decolonised countries or from countries still under colonial rule, but with greater political rights. This is particularly true of the « Centre International » on Rue Belliard which hosted conferences organised by the association « Les amis de Présence africaine ».

But above all, Expo 58 enabled the Congolese people, from different regions and positions, to meet for the first time and share their thirst for autonomy. Such contacts would have been impossible in the Congo, where the size of the territory and the restrictions imposed by the colonial authorities made long-distance travel impossible.

During Expo 58, the Congolese people also discovered the right to demonstrate freely, exercised by mainland Belgians (in the context of the « Second School War » which was coming to an end). During the exhibition, an « African committee » at the CAPA made use of this right to protest, but to no avail. The committee wanted to denounce the unequal treatment of Belgian and Congolese staff at the Expo.

The Congolese people who visited the Expo returned home with a mixture of frustration and confidence gained in an autonomous future. A few weeks after the end of Expo 58, riots broke out in Léopoldville with cries of « Dipanda! » (« Independence! ») The Congo finally declared its independence on 30 June 1960.

Expo 58: « A formidable job of undermining and brainwashing »

In his memoirs, Léon Pétillon (Governor-General of the Belgian Congo, then briefly Minister for the Colonies during Expo 58) talks of « the mixing of people and the follies of the Expo » that did « a formidable job of undermining and brainwashing » the Congolese people. He added that it was « dreadful to think that this was done under the aegis of a Belgian government that seemed oblivious to the fact that the Congo was sinking deeper and deeper into a pre-revolutionary atmosphere. »

The unsourced quotations used in the exhibition texts are taken from documents of the time: brochures, bulletins, programmes and official guides from 1935 and 1958, Livre d’or de l’Exposition universelle de 1935 and Mémorial de l’Exposition universelle de 1958.
The dates of birth and death of the persons have been mentioned to the best of our knowledge.