Matthias Schoenaerts has painted a gigantic mural in Ostend. Between 16 and 18 November, he performed the impressive feat of painting an area of 371.2 m² entirely with spray paints. The work is a reference to the statue of Leopold II located on the Zeedijk in Ostend. The artist, who feels a strong personal commitment to Black Lives Matter, hopes that his work will draw more attention to the movement.
“History must be put in context and dialogue is crucial. Simply removing the statue of Leopold II from the Drie Gapers archway is not an option; we cannot hide from it or avert our gaze. A critical reconsideration of Belgium’s colonial history under Leopold II must take place in public spaces, where it is visible”, says the mayor of Ostend, Bart Tommelein. “Our decision to also present this alternative image as street art was a very logical one. That is because street art is an art form that can bring many people together, encouraging them to engage in conversation with bystanders. We already have a very large collection of murals as part of The Crystal Ship, in which many works address issues and act as talking points.”
Matthias Schoenaerts, alias street artist Zenith, has this to say: “We can only progress if we dare to confront the past. Here that means confronting the atrocities that took place under Leopold II’s regime in the Congo Free State. The work is a way to spark off conversations and talk about the trauma together as one community, in the hope of a better future.”
Ostend and Leopold II
The life of Leopold II and the history of the city of Ostend are very closely intertwined. Leopold II was the king who commissioned the creation of the Maria Hendrikapark and the construction of St Peter’s and St Paul’s Church, the Wellington Racetrack and the Royal Galleries, for example. These locations are still among the top tourist attractions of the ‘City by the Sea’ today. The way these landmarks were built is still extremely controversial, since they were financed with capital garnered from the Congo Free State, the monarch’s personal property. Leopold II’s rule was marked by many horrific practices such as torture, murder and – the most notorious practice in the colony – the chopping off of hands.
Silke Beirens, Ostend’s alderwoman for Humans and the Environment, comments: “We want to give the colonial past a place in our city. Dialogue is key to this. Next year we will be committing to a more extensive decolonisation and participation process with and for the people of Ostend. Over the past few decades, the focus has been on Leopold II as an urban designer, but in this administration we want to shed light on the full story. This work by Zenith is a clever interpretation of it.”
The Crystal Ship
The wall on which the work is painted is located at Cardijnplein 3. Previously, the artist Ricky Lee Gordon painted a mural here in 2017 for The Crystal Ship, Ostend’s festival of street art, for which artists from Belgium and abroad create art installations and murals with the city as their canvas. These new creations always join the works created in previous editions of the festival, forming a free art trail through the city that is constantly evolving.
The Crystal Ship by Night
“Once again, The Crystal Ship demonstrates the power of street art. The artists can convey their thoughts and message to the full, with Ostend as their canvas. The way Matthias has turned this issue into art is fantastic. The work certainly fits into our collection, which we will continue to work on and renew over the coming weeks, months and years,” says curator Bjorn Van Poucke. “We would also like to announce today that we will be adding a unique experience from 19 December onwards, with new installations along the trail.”
In the first edition of The Crystal Ship by Night, new and existing works in The Crystal Ship will be illuminated, forming a unique walking trail in Ostend at twilight. Between 19 December and 3 January, several light installations will also be set up in the city along with the murals. The programme will be published in the week commencing 23 November on the website www.thecrystalship.be.