110 years after its first presentation in the Colonial Pavillion at the 1913 International Exhibition in Ghent, Belgium and almost 80 years after its last public display at the International Exhibition in Brussels in 1935, the large Panorama du Congo (115 x 14 meters) was unrolled to be photographed and filmed by the FilmEU RIT’s project Congo VR. Painted by the Belgian painters Alfred Bastien (1873-1955) and Paul Mathieu (1872-1932), this historical canvas depicting scenes from the Belgian Congo was initially displayed in a purpose-built rotunda where it could be viewed from a central platform. This unique piece of colonial heritage is part of the collection of the War Heritage Institute (WHI) in Belgium and has been stored in military facilities for the last decades. This particular context has now proved crucial for securing the logistics and manpower required to unroll the 15 meters roll weighing several tons. Using two bergepanzer 2000 tanks with cranes, the rolled canvas was transported to a large warehouse by personnel of the WHI, the Congo VR team and a group of volunteers. The success of this crucial operation is the result of a combination of military, heritage and academic expertise. It is an important first step in the digital preservation and future research of this important artefact of colonial heritage.
Prepared several months in advance, a protocol to photograph the entire 1610 square meter original painting was developed by the Congo VR team. The reproduction was executed following the highest standards for digitising cultural heritage, as used by leading museums and libraries across Europe. Since there are no guidelines for paintings of this size and nature, the Metamorfoze Preservation Imaging Guidelines were used as the standard. These demanding specifications allowed the photography team of Congo VR to create a digital copy of the panorama with extreme detail and colour accuracy. The photos were shot with a Fujifilm GFX 100s camera, generously provided by Fuji. Over 830 100-megapixel photos will now be stitched together to build up the complete panorama in one more than 7-gigapixel resolution image. Such resolution allows the researchers to get closer to the image and discover unseen small details as well as the brushstrokes of the painters and the material condition of the canvas. The post-production stage will also include digital retouching and the use of A.I. protocols in an effort to restore as close as possible the original look of the canvas and to enable its full use in Virtual Reality.
As stated in its name, the project Congo-VR finally aims to recreate the Panorama du Congo with Virtual Reality technologies. This virtual reenactment will not only allow new generations to experience this colonial heritage in an immersive environment. For the interdisciplinary research team it is also the starting point to stimulate discussion and foster dialogue with stakeholders from the West as well as the Global South on the position of colonial heritage from decolonial and post-colonial perspectives. Future steps include artistic research collaborations with artists with links to the Global South, researching new forms of interaction with archive materials in a VR environment and the production of a feature documentary film.
Congo VR’s photography team: Rodrigo Peixoto, Tomas Vandecasteele et Lennert Deprettere as lead photographers. José Fadolla and Oleksandr Lyashchenko as assistant photographers. The reproduction protocol was developed by António Coelho.
This research was developed in the context of the FilmEU – European Universities Alliance for Film and Media Arts work and supported in part by funding from the FILMEU_RIT - Research | Innovation | Transformation project, European Union GRANT_NUMBER: H2020-IBA-SwafS-Support-2-2020, Ref: 101035820 and the FILMEU - The European University for Film and Media Arts project, European Union GRANT_NUMBER: 101004047, EPP-EUR-UNIV-2020