The Museum of Fine Arts is still closed, but it recently launched an initiative to buy the work of emerging and mid-career artists. One of the first works announced is a still life, but it’s not of fruits or flowers. It’s of historic artifacts from Africa. And it was born of anger.
The painting titled “Lumumba’s Harp,” by 42-year-old African American artist Jas Knight, honors Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of the Republic of the Congo.
Knight had never heard of Lumumba when, as a young adult, he stumbled across a film about Congo's former leader while scanning Netflix. The film blew his mind.
“I watched it, and I couldn’t let the story go,” Knight said.
Lumumba, who was elected in 1960, advocated for self-determination of Black people of the Congo. From the get-go, he spoke honestly about how for nearly a century, the Congolese had been brutally exploited by their Belgian colonial rulers for the region’s vast mineral wealth. Lumumba named the abuses: forced labor, rape, mutilation and mass killings.
He was immediately declared an international threat by a host of nations, including then-U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who hatched a plot with the CIA to eliminate him. Within months — with the cooperation of Belgian officials and Congolese opposition parties — Lumumba was murdered and dismembered, his remains dissolved in sulfuric acid.
Learning about this, Knight was angry.
“Here was a promising, intelligent and democratically-elected leader who was murdered because of his honesty about colonization,” Knight said. “The fact that American tax dollars were used to aid in the assassination of an African leader simply for being for the self-determination of Black people in his country was criminal.”
Knight was especially incensed that he’d learned nothing about this in school.
“All through grammar school, never heard him mentioned; never heard him mentioned through high school, never heard him mentioned in college,” he recalled, despite learning about other African leaders.
“They tell you about autocratic dictators from Africa, but they never mention just, intelligent men like Lumumba, and I believe this is by design,” Knight said. “His story implicates the USA, and the system that killed his voice in the 60s is still very much alive today.”
After seeing the film about Lumumba, Knight started researching colonization in Africa. He read about the “reign of terror” in the Congo, where upwards of 10 million people were killed under the colonial regime.
The artist felt that Lumumba’s story needed to be told.
Knight typically uses historic techniques to paint contemporary subjects and is known for his life-like portraits. But “Lumumba’s Harp” depicts an arrangement of objects: a mask from South Sudan, a harp from Gabon, a pot holder from Cameroon, and a terra cotta figure from Nigeria.
“It’s important that the objects were from all over Africa,” Knight said, “because the story of colonization in Africa is essentially the same story everywhere.”
Lumumba embraced Pan-Africanism, the idea that Black people in Africa should transcend their tribal and cultural differences to unite to fight oppression.
Knight said that when he discovered Lumumba, he discovered himself.
“His story became a window — I should say, more of a door — into this insidious thing we call colonization, the kind of treatment that Blacks and other peoples have undergone as a result of colonizers coming in and thinking of people and the land as a resource to be ravaged and used.”
Just this week, King Philippe of Belgium formally apologized for the atrocities committed in the Congo during Belgium’s 80 years of colonial rule. It was the royal family’s first public acknowledgement of the abuse.
“I want to express my deepest regrets for the wounds of the past, the pain of which is revived today by discriminations that are still too present in our societies,” the king wrote in a letter sent to President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo, adding that he will continue to fight against all forms of racism.
Reading about colonization in Africa led Knight to learn more about colonization in America.
“You end up in Virginia, where you discover the story of slavery in America. And you see there are connections between the way people were treated here in America and the way Congolese people were treated. And the story, as we can see in the streets right now, hasn’t ended.”
Akili Tommasino, the MFA curator who led the acquisition of “Lumumba’s Harp,” is excited by the doors it may open.
“I think it’s wonderful that this work, which isn’t a direct homage to Lumumba, the way a portrait might be, can inspire someone to look into how his story is emblematic of the history and legacy of colonization as well as the efforts of Black leaders throughout the world to overcome systematic white supremacy.”
Knight hopes his work might especially inspire a specific audience.
“This was a man a Black student here in America should know about,” he said.