Counter-Archive in Palimpsest of the Africa Museum

In 2013, the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium (now: AfricaMuseum) closed for renovation. Not only the building and the museum cabinets were in need of renewal; the spirit of the museum too, had to be brought into this century. The process of  “decolonization” led to debates in a structural advisory committee, called COMRAF.

What follows is a reflection on fragments from our documentary that focuses on this renovation, entitled Palimpsest of the Africa Museum. On the one hand, the documentary tackles the museum-as-archive and includes and transforms moving images from the colonial film archive itself. On the other hand, the film resulted in building a kind of counter-archive by filming the process of renovation.

I understand “the archive” here as a socio-political repository based on power mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion. Narratives and conceptions of past and present emerging from the archive, helped the legitimization and construction of colonialism (Steedman 591; Stoler 83–103) and served colonial memory politics. Particularly in relation to colonialism, what is omitted, excluded, and denied in the archive becomes significant. Consequently, I understand the counter-archive here as a politics of remembering by creating what is invisible in the official archives. Counter-archives enable counter-histories, counter-historiographies and counter-memorial practices by counteracting archival epistemologies of power. Moreover, they become “a ritual space within which cultural memory and history are preserved” (Cvetkovitch 368, quoted by Ozban 8).

Palimpsest is the first part of a cinematic triptych (with Lobi Kuna and Diorama) about crippled, lame or failed decolonizations. While showing these failed processes, the triptych attempts to deal with the colonial heritage of the cinematic medium itself.

Poster of the documentary Palimpsest of the Africa Museum (2018). (Credit: Matthias De Groof/Cobra Films.)

I remember John Akomfrah telling us during a guest lecture for a cinema class at NYU that “Nothing attests to the diasporic experience, in England. No street sign, no monument with which we can identify, whereas you,” he said, “are surrounded by everything that confirms your existence.” He then referred to what Orlando Patterson calls “the absence of ruins.” “Nothing attests to our existence,” he continued, except the archive.” Since the 80s, the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC), of which Akomfrah is a member, dug into several audiovisual archives and made cinematic masterpieces, starting with Signs of Empire in the early 80s. Their works show us that meanings in the archive are never fixed; its images and sounds can thus be appropriated and their meanings altered. As Paula Amad would say, this is especially true for the film archive, since film’s multifaceted challenge to historicism is itself a counter-archival intervention (21). The indeterminacy of film and its undisciplined and fragmented styles, challenges and subverts positivist memo­ry politics associated with the archive.

In Belgium, we have an immense colonial archive, with many “signs of empire”; it’s called the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Indeed, in a way, the museum is an archive. The building—the biggest colonial monu­ment in Belgium—needed to be restored. Some people must have thought: “Why not call the restoration a ‘decolonization’?” The question—how can a renovation of signs of empire possibly be compatible with a claim of decolonization?—brought us to film the very contradictory process, a process which points us to the very stubborn colonial nature of the archive. Before delving into three short fragments, the trailer of Palimpsest of the Africa Museum provides you with a general sense of the film.

Fragment of Palimpsest of the Africa Museum (2018). (Credit: Matthias De Groof/ Cobra Films.)

A palimpsest is a phenomenon in which something, such as writing, is erased but its traces remain visible as something else is superimposed. When attempting to remove coloniality, its traces are never fully removed and often clearly reemerge as Toma Luntumbue Mutebe will attest to in the following clip, speaking about the idea of exhibiting stuffed animals
in the renewed exhibition.

Fragment of Palimpsest of the Africa Museum (2018). (Credit: Matthias De Groof/ Cobra Films.)

The statue of King Leopold II being removed in the clip is the same shot as in the trailer, but now with music by Ernst Reijseger. The statues visible thereafter also return at the end of the film and in the last fragment. They are highly problematic. These pieces of archive, these “signs of empire,” are racist metonymic depictions of a continent that is presented as available to the West. Now, what to do with these images of coloniality?

In an attempt to suggest a possible answer, the clip shows destruction of glass, of showcases. The vitrines in which cultural artifacts are being kept, displayed, exhibited, deprived of their value, and imprisoned, are now opened or destroyed. The destruction is a moment of catharsis, a symbolic violence that reminds us of how decolonization is not a gentle process, but a disruption.

Next, vitrines are opened, and the artifacts are released and freed. But this brief moment of optimism of what decolonization could be is soon deflated, contradicted. The masks and statues are put back into the archive, into the collection. Collecting samples aiming to be representative of other cultures in order grasp them better is a foundation of colonial epistemology. Maybe the idea of the archive is itself colonial? It is telling at least to notice that the word “archive” is derived from the verb ἄρχω (arkhō), “to begin, rule, govern” (Liddell).

Our documentary makes use of pieces of archival film. In the last clip the use of archival footage stresses today’s continuation of the colonial logics of hunting and collecting. The following clip includes another piece of archival film. Before cutting to this material, however, the clip begins by visualizing the aforementioned contradiction between: firstly, the image of destruction (as a phantasma that is the imagination of the filmmaker); and secondly, the reality of renovation and the polishing of a colonial monument. Jean Bofane, the acclaimed Congolese novelist, wrote the voice-over for the film, and in this clip embodies the perspective of the cultural artifacts being archived, who continue to speak.

Fragment of Palimpsest of the Africa Museum (2018). (Credit: Matthias De Groof/ Cobra Films.)

This old footage, this propaganda film found in the archives, again witnesses how coloniality works: it sees this mineral wealth as available to the West; it imposes on the colonies a model of development and progress, and extracts from this its moral legitimacy; and in order to do this, it has to construct the colony as “not yet developed.” By showing traces of  “the other” as our past, the museum functions thus as an ideological apparatus of Enlightenment with colonialism as its pinnacle. The archive functions similarly. It contains traces of the past, making progress tangible. However, what our use of archival footage in this documentary intends to do, is—on the contrary—show that there is no progress as such and that rather, the renovation is a continuation of this coloniality, but now with the rhetorics of  “decoloniality”—or better, “decolonialism”—which clearly feed back into colonial practices.

Fragment of Palimpsest of the Africa Museum (2018). (Credit: Matthias De Groof/ Cobra Films.)

In what ways does Palimpsest provide concrete examples of a counter-archive? Firstly, the film attempts to use fragments of the archive using found footage to counter the hegemonic ideology voiced by the archive itself. This is close to Gayatri Spivak’s notion of  “affirmative sabotage” in which she offers an answer to Audre Lorde’s famous question: Can the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house? “Sabotage” dates back to the Industrial Revolution. Automated machines threatened to make human labor redundant, prompting workers to stop the looms by throwing their sabots (clogs) into the gears (Dhawan 71). “Affirmative sabotage,” set out by Spivak is the deliberate destruction of the master’s machine from within, meaning that you completely enter the discourse you criticize, so that you can reverse it from the inside.

But the film constitutes a counter-archive in another way, and this has to do with the methodology of filmmaking. Some of the most important perspectives of the film are ones voiced by the members of COMRAF. We asked for their collaboration on the film not in the least because as Afro-descendants, they provided the film with a point of view that shows what is at stake in a museum that decides on their image and cultural heritage. Conversely, COMRAF chose to collaborate with us not in the least because it would enable them to build with us an archive documenting the entire process and that consequently could be used as testimony of certain claims and evidence of decisions made. As Palimpsest has manifested, it is only one among all possible edits chosen of that counter-archive. It is only by being freely available, and open to re-edits, that this counter-archive can aspire to become an active agent for counter-histories.

Artist Approach
Film & Video


Akomfrah, John. Guest Lecture, NYU, Tisch School of the Arts, Cinema Studies, New York, 2011.

Amad, Paula. Counter-Archive: Film, the Everyday, and Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Plante. Columbia University Press, 2010.

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive Of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, And Lesbian Public Cultures. Duke University Press, 2003.

Dhawan, Nikita. “Affirmative Sabotage of the Master’s Tools: The Paradox of Postcolonial Enlightenment.” Decolonizing Enlightenment: Transnational Justice, Human Rights and Democracy in a Postcolonial World, edited by Dhawan Nikita, Verlag Barbara Budrich, 2014.

Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. Clarendon Press, 1940, Accessed 25 May 2020.

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984, pp. 110–114.

Ozban, Esra. The Politics of Archive and Counter-Archival Practices: The Case of Geziparkarsiv. MA Thesis, Film and Screen Studies, Goldsmiths College, University of London, 2014.

Patterson, Orlando. An Absence of Ruins. Hutchinson, 1967.

Steedman, Carolyn . “The Space of Memory: In an Archive.” History of the Human Sciences vol. 11, no. 4, 1998, pp. 65–83.

Stoler, Ann Laura. “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance: On the Content in the Form.” Refiguring the Archive edited by Carolyn Hamilton et al, Springer, 2006, pp. 83–103.

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