At first glance, Sculpture appears to show a noble African tribesman captured in oils, clearly based on a source photograph. There is drama and dignity in the pose and the distant gaze of the subject. The title alone destroys this impression. Sculpture's source image is not a photographic document of the exotic, but instead a snap of a sculpture in an Antwerp restaurant. Tuymans' pictures are provocative shards and hints of history: superficially a warm and striking picture, Sculpture actually touches upon one of the sorest, most debated and most infamous periods of Belgium's past, the colonization of the Congo. By comparing the image and its title, an entire Western history of the objectification and exploitation of Africans is poignantly and uncomfortably brought to light.
Sculpture is, strictly speaking, a still-life painting. Tuymans plays an almost Magrittean 'Ceci n'est pas...' game with the viewer, introducing concepts of the nature of art and representation. That a domestic object can be mistaken with a man, and that a source photograph can be transformed into a painting, introduce conceptual debates on the nature of art that are eclipsed under the withering accusations of Sculpture's associations. We are initially unable to discern between an African sculpture and an African life: this visual ambiguity implicates the modern viewer in the same inhumanities perpetrated by the Belgians in the Congo. Tuymans' leaves us complicit, self-aware and self-accusing. In Sculpture, the dark memento mori content present in any still-life taints us with the same racist charges that have tainted Belgium's history.
Painted in 2000, Sculpture formed part of Tuymans' famous Mwana Kitoko: Beautiful White Man series, exhibited that year at the David Zwirner Gallery and the following year in the Belgian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Amongst the works shown were images of Congolese dictators, heroes and importantly the Belgian King Baudouin II visiting his then dominion. This painting of Baudouin shared the title Mwana Kitoko. This Congolese nickname for the King meant 'beautiful boy' (not man); the Belgians had immediately twisted the phrase to Bwana Kitoko, 'beautiful master'. The exhibition's juxtaposition of the original nickname and its converted meaning reflects the Surreal exploration of discrepancies that make Tuymans' art so powerful.
Venice's Biennale pavilions are usually forums for demonstrations of each nation's brilliance in art, and therefore have connotations of national pride. Tuymans shocked the world by displaying his country's dark history on a grand and international scale, with a title that even mocked a monarch. Tuymans' art had often involved criticism of Belgian concepts of national pride, even hinting at Belgium's complicity in unsavoury periods of history, not least in his concentration camp-themed paintings. In his Mwana Kitoko pictures, he dragged the ugliest elements of Belgian history and identity into the open.
Sculpture shows a relic, a key that hints at Belgium's continued guilt by association. Be it in the Nineteenth Century barbarity of the colonial administration, or in the international complicity that abetted the bloody tumults that marked the beginning of the Congo's independence, Sculpture and the Venice works point towards a violence that remains only just off-stage: 'Violence is the only structure underlying my work. It is both physical and detached at the same time' (Tuymans, quoted in R. Storr, 'A Worst Case Scenario', pp. 13-39, Luc Tuymans: Mwana Kitoko, Beautiful White Man, exh.cat. from 2001 Venice Biennale, Ghent, 2001, p. 35). This violence is not explicit in Sculpture, just as it was not explicit on the part of many of the Belgians. As during the Holocaust, indifference itself, or denial, conveniently immunized people against feeling guilt, while further implicating them in the actions they passively condoned, and profited from. In the Mwana Kitoko pictures, Tuymans uses a Freudian exploration of the heimlich and the uncanny to ram home Hannah Arendt's concept of the 'banality of evil':
'Indifference is also a form of violence, as are omission and reduction. Violence is for me mainly an atmospheric picture. None of my pictures shows an act of violence or offence. It is rather a question of violence as an object. It is similar to a scientific statement: something could happen, something has happened and will always happen. The viewer or observer becomes an offender after the act' (Tuymans, quoted in Storr, op.cit., 2001, p. 54).
Sculpture's obliqueness intensifies this violence. This painting launches a chain of associations in the viewer's mind, linking the sculpture to Belgium, to the Congo, and therefore to the neglect and exploitation of the Congolese. What is not shown is far more eloquent than what is shown. In other pictures, Tuymans painted supposedly innocuous, heimlich objects from the Auschwitz museum such as a lamp, or the 'shower' rooms there, yet their associations filled them with an acute awareness of the uncanny. In Sculpture, this process' opacity is intensified because Tuymans eschews the disturbing pastiness that often makes his other works so uncomfortable. This deepens the jarring contrast between the heimlich sculpture and its deep-rooted unheimlich associations. Superficially, Sculpture is a strong and even attractive painting, but in its associations it prices open the festering wound of Western colonial guilt and contemporary racism and exploitation.