Memories of war: How a painting with echoes of a painful past finally found its way home

After a spell reporting in the troubled Congo, David Orr bought a canvas depicting a bloody episode in that country’s history. But owning it never felt quite right

David Orr standing beside his African painting at home in France

Dr Bambi Ceuppens examining the painting in her office at the Africa Museum

Rwandan refugee children in the Nineties plead with Zairian soldiers to let them cross a bridge to rejoin their mothers who had crossed moments before

Parachutists jumping – David Orr beside his African painting at home in France

thumbnail: David Orr standing beside his African painting at home in France
thumbnail: Dr Bambi Ceuppens examining the painting in her office at the Africa Museum
thumbnail: Rwandan refugee children in the Nineties plead with Zairian soldiers to let them cross a bridge to rejoin their mothers who had crossed moments before
thumbnail: Parachutists jumping – David Orr beside his African painting at home in France
David Orr

For days the rain fell in sheets and every train we booked was cancelled – but on we trundled northwards towards Brussels with an old painting clad in protective cardboard bearing an aged sticker, reading ‘Aer Lingus: Fragile’.

Accompanied by my wife, I was taking an African artwork, if not back to Africa, then to a place where I felt it would be at home: the Royal Museum for Central Africa on the outskirts of the Belgian capital.

I’d become convinced that the picture, which I’d bought in the Congo a quarter of a century ago and which had been restored in Ireland, belonged not in our home near Bordeaux but with others of its kind.

Over the years, I’d talked to Africana collectors and dealers and had even considered selling the picture at a flea market in Paris where, through a friend, I’d met some African art traders.

But none of this had felt quite right. All the while, the painting – dismissed by family members as “horrific” – had languished in an attic in London and then in a storeroom in France.

Why I felt so determined to do the right thing by a battered old canvas of dubious origin and little monetary value perhaps needs explaining.

‘Help us to go out of the wood as we are very afraid of being killed’

The year is 1997 and, newly recruited by the Times of London, I’m in Kisangani – a decaying city on the banks of the Congo River, deep in the equatorial rainforest.

These are the closing days of the corrupt dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, who has ruled the country – then known as Zaire – for more than three decades, and the place is in ferment. A force of rebel fighters has just taken the city and has its sights set on the capital, Kinshasa, more than 1,000km to the west.

I’m among a band of foreign correspondents who, as well as reporting on the insurgency, are following the fate of tens of thousands of displaced Rwandans living without food or drinking water in the rainforest.

These ethnic Hutus – many of them perpetrators of the genocide that took place in Rwanda three years earlier – are considered fair game by both the rebels and local villagers.

Rwandan refugee children in the Nineties plead with Zairian soldiers to let them cross a bridge to rejoin their mothers who had crossed moments before

Bodies litter the forest and people with dreadful wounds hide among the trees. To reach their camp, we journalists ride pillion on motorbike taxis through the forest. One time, we’re chased by crazed men brandishing machetes.

Another day, a woman dashes up to me, pushing a note into my hand: “Help us to go out of the wood as we are very afraid of being killed.”

One surreal memory of that accursed camp: semi-conscious people lying head down in a pit latrine. I pocket my notebook and start pulling them out of the filth so they can at least die in dignity. A South African cameraman yells at me that I’m meant to be a reporter, not a doctor or an aid worker. For some reason, the half-naked bodies are stained head to toe in gentian violet.

I recall these events because they say something about my mental state at the time, and go some way towards explaining why, while waiting at the airstrip to leave Kisangani at the end of my assignment, I bought a painting of a massacre. Not a recent massacre, but one which had taken place decades before in 1964, in the early years of the Congo’s independence from Belgium.

As depicted on the canvas, the killing happened when Belgian paratroopers were airdropped by US military planes onto the airfield at Kisangani, then known as Stanleyville. Their mission was to rescue hundreds of Westerners who’d been taken hostage by communist-backed rebels during the so-called Simba rebellion.

Inevitably, there was bloodshed. While most of the hostages were rescued, two dozen expatriates were killed, as were dozens of Simba rebels. Over the following days, 1,800 Americans and Europeans were evacuated, as well as around 400 Congolese, though nearly 200 foreigners and thousands of Congolese were executed by the rebels.

This then was the scene I chose to bring home as a souvenir of my Congo assignment in 1997.

That was the summer my son was born in London. On our visit to Ireland with the new-born, I also took the Congolese canvas, rolled up in my case. While in Dublin, I thought to show it to my cousin, Elizabeth Larkin, a picture restorer. She offered to clean it up. The next time I saw her around Christmas that year, she presented it to me, not only cleaned but mounted on a stretcher.

So it was that my African painting gained an Irish dimension, one which contributed to my attachment to it, for I was very fond of Elizabeth. I wrote about her in this newspaper’s magazine in November 2021 – so I will not retell her story, except to recall that she and her husband, Patrick, enjoyed a wonderful life, travelling the world before settling in an artisan cottage in Dún Laoghaire where she had her studio.

In March 2020, she and Patrick, by now ailing and in their 80s, decided to end it all. They swallowed a dose of lethal drugs (he’d been a pharmacist so knew how to go about it) and were found dead the next morning, having mailed messages about their intentions to relatives and neighbours.

It was for Elizabeth, as much as for myself, that I wanted to find a good home for the painting. Having largely hung up my own traveling boots and settled near Bordeaux a couple of years ago, I made the picture one of my projects.

It wasn’t, however, until my research led me to Dr Bambi Ceuppens, a Belgian anthropologist at the Africa Museum in Tervuren, that I knew I’d found the right answer.

Dr Bambi Ceuppens examining the painting in her office at the Africa Museum

An email correspondence with her led to my decision to donate the painting to the museum which boasts one of the world’s most extraordinary collections of Congolese ethnographic and other objects.

I met Dr Ceuppens there in March and handed over the picture which, on the museum’s acquisition form, she named ‘Parachutists jumping at Kisangani in 1964’.

My museum visit was an opportunity to learn about Congolese art and the tradition to which the work belongs. It was probably painted in the 1970s or 1980s. Though signed – the signature seems to read ‘Iyongo’ – the artist remains unknown, at least for the moment.

“This style of painting began during the Belgian colonial era and peaked in the decades after independence in 1960,” says Dr Ceuppens. “The purpose of these images, often drawn from recent history, was to inspire conversation. People would display them in living rooms where they’d provoke discussion and debate.”

‘It’s wrong to think of it as ‘naïve art’ – that’s a Western style of painting’

For those who’d lived through the Simba rebellion, ‘Parachutists’ would have been a chance to exchange memories and exorcise the trauma of that time. And, for the younger generation, it would have served an educational purpose.

Since the advent of computers and mass media, such paintings are no longer so popular – though they’re still produced in the tourist centres of the country, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Such paintings don’t have a huge monetary value and some people might say they don’t have much artistic value either. But they’ve real cultural significance.

"Congolese people look at these paintings in a very different way to Westerners. It’s wrong to think of them as ‘naïve art’, that’s a Western style of painting which has nothing with this Congolese genre of popular, urban painting,” she says.

The Africa Museum has assembled the largest collection of such paintings in the world, more than 2,000 of them, mostly acquired from a Canadian collector in 2013. Here they can be studied and, from time to time, exhibited. Bambi gives me the catalogue from the last show in 2016, pointing to a painting similar to the one I have gifted.

She’s keen to know more about Elizabeth who restored the picture (“It’s in very good condition,” she says approvingly), so I give her a copy of my Life magazine article about my cousins, background material which will go on file in the museum’s archive.

On our way from her office to the museum building, we get to chatting about Congo-Irish links, including Roger Casement, the Irish diplomat and nationalist whose 1904 report on human rights abuses in the Congo was instrumental in King Leopold II of Belgium relinquishing his personal ownership of the Congo granted to him at a 19th century conference where the European powers carved up Africa.

Bambi mentions the Irish troops who participated in a UN peacekeeping operation in the Congo in the early 1960s (a dozen of them were killed) and Irish diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien, who gained global prominence over his role as UN special representative to the newly-independent country.

‘The debate on returning art focuses mainly on ritual objects, not on recent works’

It transpires that not only has Bambi been to several academic conferences in Ireland but that one of her sisters is married to an Irishman.

A tour of the museum reveals some of the amazing objects on display: chains and handcuffs used to shackle Congolese slaves; a plaster statue of the ‘Leopard Man’, now widely regarded as a racist image and consigned to the basement; and a ritual statue used to identify thieves. Ironically this had been looted by a Belgian military officer in the late 19th century.

The bulk of the museum’s collection dates to the colonial era. Given that many artefacts were acquired by amateurs and adventurers under dubious circumstances, questions about ownership and provenance are now coming to the fore. And they’re being given added urgency by discussions about cultural appropriation and, ultimately, about restitution.

“It’s really up to the Congolese what they want returned,” says Bambi. “For the moment, the debate on restitution focuses mainly on ritual objects, not on recent works.

"So far, we haven’t received any official demands from the Congolese government. But that may change and then this and other museums would have to rethink their roles.”

Once dubbed “the last colonial museum in the world”, the Africa Museum was, until a few decades ago, focused exclusively on the Belgian presence in the Congo. More recently, and particularly since its refurbishment in 2018, it has been reorganised to celebrate African perspectives on life and art.

Collections are being re-evaluated, labels rewritten and contemporary objects – including a massive talking traffic robot from Kinshasa – added. In short, the museum is very much a work in progress.

I hope that one day, my African painting (perhaps never really mine) will be included in an exhibition here.

If and when that day comes, I shall revisit the museum and enjoy it in its new setting.

I think my cousin Elizabeth would be pleased that it has come to rest in an appropriate place.