Belgium's "constant identity crisis" as well as its history with the Congo are on show in a new exhibition and publication devoted to the country's photobooks
“To date, hardly any research has been conducted into Belgian photobooks,” opens the exhibition Photobook Belge, now on show at FOMU and published as a book by FOMU in partnership with Hannibal. “Photobook Belge provides an overview of the evolution of the Belgian photobook from the mid-19th century to today.”
Including nearly 250 publications, Photobook Belge is divided into eight chapters, looking at areas such as Artists’ Books, Belgian national identity, and the relationship between text and images. Belgium’s brutal colonisation of the Congo, its subsequent relationship with the country, and its often problematic representation of it in images, is given a whole chapter. “Many of the photobooks published since the 50th anniversary of [Congo’s] independence in 2010 oscillate between a more or less overt nostalgia, Afro-pessimism and an aesthetic of ruins,” states the curator Tamara Berghmans. “Most are still the result of a white, male gaze.”Photobook Belge ends up with two sections on recent Belgian photobooks, the first of which is devoted to Belgian photobooks since the turn of the 21st century and includes publications such as Stephan Vanfleteren’s Belgicum and Harry Gruyaert and Hugo Claus’ Made in Belgium; well-respected young photographers Bieke Depoorter and Max Pinckers are also included in the exhibition and book. The last chapter showcases photobooks and dummies from the last five years, as selected by 11 Belgian photography academies from among their student cohort.
As the exhibition text notes, photography and Belgium both started at around the same time, with Belgium declaring its independence from The Netherlands in 1931, just as Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and Henry Fox Talbot were making the first photographic images. “Photography and Belgium were born at the same time. In some ways, they even grew up together,” reads the text. “As the new nation state developed its self-image and cultivated its cultural heritage, this upstart technology and nascent art form was on hand to offer support and reinforce national pride.”
Elsewhere, photobooks intersect with Belgium in more critical and more humorous ways. “The Belgian identity, or ‘Belgitude’, is sometimes described as a hollow identity, that is, defined by what it is not,” reads the introduction to the chapter on ‘Belgitude’. “The photobooks on display here are not concerned with harsh political statements, but represent personal views of a paradoxical and sometimes absurd country in the throes of a constant identity crisis.”
Photobook Belge is on show until 06 October at FOMU Fotomuseum Antwerpen, Waalsekaai 47, 2000 Antwerp, Belgium www.fotomuseum.be Photobook Belge is published by FOMU in partnership with Hannibal, priced €59 www.uitgeverijkannibaal.be/photobook-belge