But there, surrounding the ageing art deco building, were statues of Congo's history of agony--large almost socialist realist renderings of soldiers carrying the wounded, or falling on the battlefield.
Even an art school cannot ignore the history around it. The curator told me that it is only recently that art students have been allowed to do work of social commentary.
On Friday, we passed a public monument alongside a well-traveled highway. It was for someone who took decades to be resuscitated as a national hero, the country's first post-independence prime minister later assassinated with CIA help in 1961.
His name: Patrice Lumumba.
What happened is still to some a mystery of history as US News reported in 2000:
"It was the height of the Cold War when Sidney Gottlieb arrived in Congo in September 1960. The CIA man was toting a vial of poison. His target: the toothbrush of Patrice Lumumba, Congo's charismatic first prime minister, who was also feared to be a rabid Communist. As it happened, Lumumba was toppled in a military coup just days before Gottlieb turned up with his poison. The plot was abandoned, the lethal potion dumped in the Congo River.
When Lumumba finally was killed, in January 1961, no one was surprised when fingers started pointing at the CIA. A Senate investigation of CIA assassinations 14 years later found no proof that the agency was behind the hit, but suspicions linger. Today, new evidence suggests Belgium, Congo's former colonialist ruler, was the mastermind. According to The Assassination of Lumumba, a book published last year in Belgium by sociologist Ludo de Witte, Belgian operatives directed and carried out the murder, and even helped dispose of the body. Belgian authorities are investigating, but officials admit de Witte's account appears accurate.
Does that mean the CIA didn't play a role? Declassified U.S. cables from the year preceding the assassination bristle with paranoia about a Lumumba-led Soviet Communist takeover. The CIA was hatching plots against Cuban leader Fidel Castro and was accused of fomenting coups and planning assassinations worldwide. And Lumumba clearly scared the daylights out of the Eisenhower administration. "In high quarters here, it is the clear-cut conclusion that if [Lumumba] continues to hold high office, the inevitable result will [have] disastrous consequences . . . for the interests of the free world generally," CIA Director Allen Dulles wrote. "Consequently, we conclude that his removal must be an urgent and prime objective."
(The CIA still doing its secret dirty work in the service of empire, driven by new "urgent" objectives in Afghanistan and around the world, unchecked, unaccountable, unpunished. As for toothbrushes, it's now Swiss bankers who are being caught smuggling diamonds in toothpaste containers. (True!) Who knows if those diamonds originated here.)
Today, at "his" monument, the "P" in Patrice had fallen off but there it was, a giant memorial with a likeness of the legendary Congolese nationalist in a suit, arm erect, waving to the masses, only in this case, he's waving at the traffic, greeting and welcoming travelers to Congo an the airport road named after him. I waved back.
Under his name were the dates of the short years he lived, 1925 to 1961. He was just 36 when he was brutally killed. Had he survived, this would have been a very different country. The Russians set up Patrice Lumumba University, a political school in Moscow for international students named after him. Malcolm X, who met a similar fate years later called him, ""the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent."
He was a voice of memory and determination which is no doubt why he frightened many in the West who had profited from their relationship to Congo, His speeches were poetic. Here's part of what he said on June 30, l960, Congo Independence Day:
"no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won [applause], a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood.There is another monument up the road for another "assassinee," Laurent Kabilla, the father of the current president Joseph, just 38 years old. Kabilla was at one time one of the Congo's revolutionaries and backed Cuba's Che Guevara who many don't remember fought a guerilla battle in the Congo before his ill-fated adventure in Bolivia. Kabilla too would be killed in office.
We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force.
This was our fate for eighty years of a colonial regime; our wounds are too fresh and too painful still for us to drive them from our memory. We have known harassing work, exacted in exchange for salaries which did not permit us to eat enough to drive away hunger, or to clothe ourselves, or to house ourselves decently, or to raise our children as creatures dear to us.
Later that night I interviewed LEXUS, a powerful local hip-hop artist who told me that these national heroes are not really taught about in the schools, and should be.