Most striking about the traditional societies of the Congo was their remarkable artwork: baskets, mats, pottery, copper and ironwork, and, above all, woodcarving. It would be two decades before Europeans really noticed this art. Its discovery then had a strong influence on Braque, Matisse, and Picasso - who subsequently kept African art objects in his studio until his death. Cubism was new only for Europeans, for it was partly inspired by specific pieces of African art, some of them from the Pende and Songye peoples, who live in the basin of the Kasai River, one of the Congo's major tributaries. It was easy to see the distinctive brilliance that so entranced Picasso and his colleagues at their first encounter with this art at an exhibit in Paris in 1907. In these central African sculptures some body parts are exaggerated, some shrunken; eyes project, cheeks sink, mouths disappear, torsos become elongated; eye sockets expand to cover almost the entire face; the human face and figure are broken apart and formed again in new ways and proportions that had previously lain beyond sight of traditional European realism. The art sprang from cultures that had, among other things, a looser sense than Islam or Christianity of the boundaries between our world and the next, as well as those between the world of humans and the world of beasts. Among the Bolia people of the Congo, for example, a king was chosen by a council of elders; by ancestors, who appeared to him in a dream; and finally by wild animals, who signaled their assent by roaring during a night when the royal candidate was left at a particular spot in the rain forest. Perhaps it was the fluidity of these boundaries that granted central Africa's artists a freedom those in Europe had not yet discovered.
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Self-government is our right, " [Roger Casement] declared. "A thing born in us at birth; a thing no more to be doled out to us or withheld from us by another people than the right to life itself - than the right to feel the sun or smell the flowers, or to love our kind... Where men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to garner the fruits of their own labours... then surely it is braver, a saner and a truer thing, to be a rebel... than tamely to accept it as the natural lot of men.
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In his fierce, bold determination to see the lives of modern-day slaves up close, Benjamin Skinner reminds me of the British abolitionist of two hundred years ago, Zachary Macaulay, who once traveled on a slave ship across the Atlantic, taking notes. Skinner goes everywhere, from border crossings to brothels to bargaining sessions with dealers in human beings, to bring us this vivid, searing account of the wide network of human trafficking and servitude which spans today's globe.
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Someday, I have no doubt, the dead from today's wars will be seen with a similar sense of sorrow at needless loss and folly as those millions of men who lie in the cemeteries of France and Belgium - and tens of millions of Americans will feel a similar revulsion for the politicians and generals who were so spendthrift with others' lives.
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And yet the world we live in-its divisions and conflicts, its widening gap between rich and poor, its seemingly inexplicable outbursts of violence-is shaped far less by what we celebrate and mythologize than by the painful events we try to forget. Leopold's Congo is but one of those silences of history.
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