Desire in Representation

Part. 1. Travelling Through the Musée Royale. Index = Register
Part. 2. O, My Kalulu
Peggy Buth
Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Akademie, 2008.
Smithsonian Libraries

Peggy Buth’s Desire in Representation explores the colonial legacy of Belgium in the Congo as presented in the palatial Musée royal de l’Afrique central (Royal Museum of Central Africa) in Tervuren where this collective memory of the Belgian Congo is preserved.  She presents her findings in two volumes: Part 1, a pictorial trip through the museum along with an Index and Register;

Desire in representation by Peggy Buth, 2008. Register Double Page (6-7). African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

and Part 2, a visual interpretation of Henry Morton Stanley’s novel My Kalulu, Prince, King, and Slave: A Story of Central Africa.[1]  Although published as a set, the two volumes are of different dimensions and have different bindings, one gray plastic, and the other dull green cloth. [Front cover] It may have been her intention to make them appear utilitarian and drab.  The visual histories they contain are likewise somber.

Part 1 – Travelling Through the Musée Royale. Index = Register

Part 1, Travelling Through the Musée Royale illustrates some of the changes in the museum’s representation of the Congo as seen in its 2005 exhibition The Memory of Congo: The Colonial Era.  In 2004, the museum began its major spatial and conceptual reorganization to reflect postcolonial Congo in terms of a new representational philosophy.  Buth’s color pictures document the contrast and continuity in the museum’s displays, for example, showing the dismantling of the museum’s old exhibits and reinstallation of new ones.

Desire in representation by Peggy Buth, 2008. No. 26, Single Page. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

Other pictures document some of the museum’s presentation techniques and paraphernalia: cases, plinths, pedestals, partitions, coloring, lighting, exhibit sequence, patterns of traffic, and views.  The focus here is on how the meanings of artifacts are re-articulated and conveyed to the public by the ways they are displayed and juxtaposed.

The Register in Part 1 is more detailed in its documentation of the representational changes in the museum.  Some photographs track the postcolonial reconstruction of the museum in the traces left behind by the successive display stands and frames on the floor and the walls.

Desire in representation by Peggy Buth, 2008. Nos. 8-9 Double Page. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

It shows photographs of historical figures placed next to photographs of their fallen statues, such as those of Henry Morton Stanley or Jean-Bedel Bokassa, head of state of the Central African Republic.  Another photograph shows a fallen and then reconstructed statue of King Leopold II in Léopoldville (today Kinshasa).  The Register also includes images of the museum’s archival materials that were used to illustrate Stanley’s novel My Kalulu.

The text accompanying the images in the Register reproduces the museum’s classification system which indicates the title, date of registration, technique, author or maker, storage location, and in some cases also an archive number and explanatory comments.

The Index inserted at the end of Part 1 lists proper names and topics used in both volumes.  For example, the word “dark” applies to dark land, dark forest, darkness, dark days, depths of hell, dark shade, dark night, dark belt, dark form, and dark loom.

Part II – O, My Kalulu!

The second volume of Buth’s book - O, My Kalulu! - is a narrative based on Stanley’s novel, My Kalulu, first published in 1873.[2]   By combining photographs from the museum’s with Stanley’s travel reports, diaries, personal letters, literary works, historical portrait photographs, and pictures from the days of colonization, Buth exposes the ambiguities in the museum’s representation of the Congo.

Desire in representation by Peggy Buth, 2008. p.39 figure 16 full page version. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

The novel involves an Arab boy named Selim and Kalulu, a boy who was born a prince but was later captured and sold into slavery.  While accompanying his father on a trade expedition into Central Africa, Selim escaped from an attack on their caravan and ran into the forest where he was rescued by Kalulu.  Years later, when Kalulu himself was captured and taken to the slave market in Zanzibar, Selim bought him, freed him, and treated him as a blood brother.

The representational parallel between the narrative of the novel and the Belgian museum gave Buth another perspective on European views of race, manhood, and masculinity.  It allowed her to highlight some of these ambiguities that are reflected in the museum’s representation of the Belgian colonization of Congo and which relate to slavery and homoeroticism.  Concerning slavery, the ambiguity inferred from Stanley’s novel is that, although the Europeans condemn slave trading, they seem to tolerate it when practiced by Arabs and Muslims.  They even find this variant of servitude appealing because, as Beatrice von Bismarck notes, it is based on religion, not ethnicity.[3]  Indeed, slavery in Stanley’s novel is presented as something akin to debenture.  Slavery also is romanticized in the absolute loyalty and dedication which the slaves Moto and Simba had for their master Selim.  Moto and Simba value human freedom but they value their master more so: “My good young master,” said Simba, in a voice broken with emotion, “we are your servants, and we are proud of it.  Are we not, Moto?” [4]

Shades of Darkness

These human conditions, where freedom is the exclusive privilege of the Arab, are depicted in a context rife with references to skin color as an aesthetic, sexual, and social category.  Desirable in a man and a woman, whiteness is a mark of natural superiority.  Thus a beautiful woman of Rua is described in the book as having a face “like the moon, in colour and form. Oh! The colour was almost as clear and light as thy son Selim’s, Amer.[5]  The white color of Selim’s face is a source of pride for his father, but the blackness of Isa, another Arab, is ugliness.  “He is a likely lad, though his skin is dark.”[6]  “‘I don’t think thee good-looking at all.  Thou art almost as black as Simba . . .’  his friend Abdullah told him.”[7]

Masculinity and the Homoerotic

Desire drives the impulse for mastery over another human being as shown in the personal relationships between Stanley, Kalulu, and Selim in life as well as in the novel.  As to the notion of desire in the novel My Kalulu, Buth identifies another deep-seated ambiguity in the European attitude towards manhood, masculinity, and the black man in general.  It is a mix of attraction and fear of contamination, which is reflected in the homoerotic references in the novel.[8]  In order to elucidate some of the subliminal homoeroticism in Stanley’s relationship with his slave, Buth inserts photographs of naked young black men taken by the American photographer F. Holland Day (1864–1933).  They are interspersed among the letters to and from Alice Pike, the woman to whom Stanley promised marriage but did not wed.  Masculinity and homoerotic desires often appear in the novel intertwined with the passion for adventure, exploration, hunting, and brotherhood.

Introspection at the Royal Museum of Central Africa

Founded in 1897, the Musée royal de l’Afrique central underwent a self-reflective period as it moved into its second century.  It was during this transformation that Buth undertook her extensive research to document the changes in the Tervuren museum and to consider how it represented Central Africa under Belgian colonial dominance.  She examined how the colonizer represented himself, exploring questions of identity within the context of the European civilization and its myths about race, manhood, and masculinity.  As the title of her work indicates, she locates the colonizer’s self-definition in desire.  This primal drive for pleasure is expressed in the colonizer’s dreams and fantasies that are fulfilled in aggression, domination and extortion.  She then turns her attention to how this representation of the self and the “other” is reflected in museum’s displays and in literary texts – namely, the novel by Stanley.

Belgian Congo’s Historical Background

With the help of Henry Morton Stanley,[9] the Belgian king Leopold II acquired large areas of Central Africa, which the Berlin West African Conference of 1884–1885 recognized as the Congo Free State.  For the Exposition Internationale de Bruxelles in 1897, Leopold built the colonial palace to showcase his Congolese collections of ethnographic objects, taxidermized animals, and samples of mining and forestry exports.

In 1898, the palace became the Musée du Congo, a permanent public establishment endowed with a research department and dedicated to the ethnographic and anthropological study of Central Africa.  Following the death of Leopold, in 1909, it became known as the Musée du Congo belge.  Its collections, which included masks, ancestral images, carved utensils, as well as vast arrays of natural history specimens, continued to grow.  With independence of the Congo in 1960, the museum was renamed the Musée royal de l’Afrique central.

Desire in representation by Peggy Buth, 2008. No. 33 Single Page. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

About the Artist

Peggy Buth, born 1971, lives and works in Berlin.  After working at the Deutsche Fernsehfunk, East Germany’s state television, she changed course and studied at St. Martin's College, London, and the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst Leipzig (Academy for Visual Arts, Leipzig).  After graduation in 2002, she continued her studies in fine arts at the Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht, from 2004 to 2005.

Buth works in multiple media, including drawing, painting, sculpture, film, audio and video images.  She also uses the technique of scratching on glass, plastic, tar, shellac, and chipboard to give expression to her artistic intent, which aims to question established beliefs and practices regarding gender and race relations.  Her art explores how meanings are culturally constructed, a theme which she continues in subsequent works, notably a solo exhibition under the same title—Desire in Representation—which was held at the Württembergischer Kunstverein from 2009 to 2010.


Bismark, Beatrice von.   “Peggy Buth: Desire in Representation    This text is a reframed version of the author’s “Peggy Buth. Desire in representation,” Camera Austria International (Graz, Austria) no. 107 (2009): pages 11-22.

Klemm’s.  “Essay: Ende Offen—Über die Austellung Desire in Representation = Open-ended Essay on the Exhibition Desire in Representation” by Hans D. Christ in cooperation withg Peggy Buth and Iris Dressler.   [text in German and English].

Musée royal de l’Afrique central website:

Stanley, Henry Morton.   My Kalulu, Prince, King and Slave : A Story of Central Africa.  New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1887, c1883.

Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart website: press release on Peggy Buth’s installation Desire in Representation (2009):


[1] Henry Morton Stanley, My Kalulu, Prince, King, and Slave: A Story of Central Africa (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1887, c1883).

[2]  In Stanley’s words, My Kalulu is a romantic novel “written for boys . . . clever, bright-eyed, intelligent boys, of all classes,” as the preface says.  It is a fictionalized story of Stanley’s servant, a boy named Kalulu, who accompanied him as a personal attendant on his African expeditions.  Stanley brought him to England in 1872 for some schooling and an introduction to Western culture.  In 1873 they returned to the Congo, where Kalulu first attempted escape in 1876 and finally disappeared without a trace in 1877 following a boat mishap.

[3]  Beatrice von Bismarck, “Peggy Buth: Desire in Representation,” Camera Austria International (Graz, Austria) no. 107 ( 2009): page 5.

[4]  Stanley, My Kalulu, page 62.

[5]  Ibid., page 8.

[6]  Ibid., page 13.

[7]  Ibid., page 64.

[8]  Ibid., page 136.

[9]  Stanley was the British-American journalist who was dispatched by the New York Herald in 1869 to track the missing Scottish explorer David Livingstone.  Stanley remained in Central Africa exploring the region from the Congo to the Atlantic.  In the process, he provided services including cartographic surveys to Leopold II, which helped lay the ground for the exploitation of the colony.  Stanley’s possessions were donated to the museum where they are archived.  He returned to England where he was knighted in 1899 and died in 1904.