Chloe Staed for Art Agenda
Often referred to as the chocolate capital of the world, it’s said that no visit to Brussels is complete without a trip to one of the city’s famous chocolate shops. In Hank Willis Thomas’s exhibition “Donnez votre main” at Maruani Mercier, the American artist shows a new body of work which posits an uncomfortable truth: Belgium’s predilection for chocolate is explicitly linked to its colonization of Congo under King Leopold II. The grizzly practice of cutting off the hands of the wives and children of workers who didn’t meet the king’s strict quotas for natural resources like cocoa, ivory, and rubber is represented throughout the exhibition, most notably in a collection of framed Antwerpse handjes—traditional Belgian chocolates shaped like hands—which Willis Thomas has arranged into patterns traditionally associated with Congolese textiles. The rest of the exhibition is dedicated to a number of screenprints mostly based on archival photographs of Belgium and Congo during colonization—made on retroreflective material that is only fully revealed when photographed. It can sometimes feel tedious, if not downright gimmicky, to view an exhibition through a cellphone screen, but this is an admittedly clever way of linking historic examples of exploitation and human rights abuses in Congo with contemporary ones—smartphones require the use of coltan, much of which is mined in the country.