Congo Blues is an apparently simple picture, one which plays with the theme of black music played by a white musician with black
hands, reflected, formally in the black and white keys of the piano. Cultural appropriation? Indications of cultural hybridity? Perhaps, but I think
that the impact and der
Teufel steckten im Detail. The sharp line across the wrist can be interpreted in a number of ways but one of them, in combination with the title,
is probably historical. In the latter part of the nineteenth century King Leopold II of Belgium acquired the Congo as a personal possession. He also
acquired a reputation for being a humane and philanthropic ruler, doing much to ‘improve’ the natives as well as using his army, the Force Publique,
to suppress the slave trade. In fact, the situation was quite reversed. Most of the Force Publique consisted of virtual slaves ‘conscripted’ from
peoples throughout the region and further afield. ‘Ex’-slave traders were to be found in the administration.
Inhumanity on the rubber plantations was normal. Workers who did not fulfil their quotas often had hands cut off. The same fate befell
those who ‘resisted’ army brutality whether they were men,
women or children. These facts can be looped together with the apparently arbitrary and provisional-looking rubber bands round the right wrist and
possibly the choice of this specific piano (and its general associations with the ivory trade) with a ‘Crown’ trademark. Congo Blues would
then be a lament, an indictment and a warning about forging history and forgetting the origin of products we take for granted.