Daily, for years on end, we could read and hear that we were lazy, evil, ugly, capable only of misdeed, clever only to the extent that we pulled one over on others . . . By their very presence, our bodies—hairy, fat, and bow-legged—befouled public swimming pools, yes, even park benches. Our hideous faces, depraved and spoilt by protruding ears and hanging noses, were disgusting to our fellow men, fellow citizens of yesterday. We were not worthy of love and thus also not of life. Our sole right, our sole duty was to disappear from the face of the earth.
Jean Améry (At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities)
Jelena Juresa’s ‘Ubundu’, a film poem filmed at Antwerp Zoo, portrays the okapi, an animal exhibited for the first time in Antwerp in 1919 (the nine-month-old animal was an instant sensation, but within a month it grew weaker and eventually died). The portrait of the animal that can only breed in captivity outside of the DRC, is juxtaposed with the voice-over acting out, shouting and singing the wounds of displacement and non-belonging.
The work is inspired by the writings of W.G. Sebald, a German author who offered an alternative model of memory through intertextuality and a metonymical narrative technique. In his most notable novels, Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn, he circumnavigates the sites of radicalised violence, tracing the line between the Holocaust and colonialism. He comments on the “Ugliness of Belgium” as a result of spreading amnesia and the participation of all Belgians in Congolese riches. Antwerp Zoo and the European railway system have an important place in Sebald’s writing: the expansion of the railways enabled the development of capitalist production and transnational transport, becoming the symbol of their age, whilst also enabling mass deportations and genocide.
Because of her intention to incorporate Sebald’s phrase about the “Ugliness of Belgium” in her new work, Juresa has been declined official permission to film the Okapi at Antwerp Zoo.