Brussels tries to cool locals’ anger over ‘racist’ street murals – with QR codes

<span>Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In the centre of Brussels, close to the monumental Palais de Justice, is a brightly coloured cartoon painted down a strip of a scruffy four-storey building. Playing on the stories of crime and judgment unfolding in the nearby courtrooms, the mural shows heaven and hell. In the blue skies, a caricatured police officer flies over a topless woman sunbathing, while a white officer eyes a black man; down below, the red-tailed devil looks grumpy.

The work, from a popular cartoon that first appeared in the 1980s, is just one of 68 murals celebrating Belgium’s rich history of comic strips, or bandes dessinées, including figures such as Tintin, Lucky Luke and the Smurfs.

But some locals are increasingly uncomfortable with the artworks. “I am deeply shocked by some of the murals,” said Pauline Grégoire, a co-founder of the feminist activist group, Noms Peut-Être. She said she did not feel welcome when she saw such stereotypical images as the topless woman seemingly ogled as an object near the Palais de Justice.

Research by Noms Peut-Être in 2020 found that 85% of the heroes on the walls were men, as were 93% of artists behind the murals. If female characters were visible, they tended to be sexualised, helpless or merely foils to males, such as Smurfette, the blonde, high-heeled “woman” of the Smurf world who, unlike her male counterparts, has no distinctive character.

Anti-racism campaigners also object to some murals. One, featuring French-American civil rights activist and Jazz Age star Josephine Baker, has been tagged with the phrase “decolonise” to denounce what are seen as racist stereotypes. The piece shows a glamorous Baker with a cheetah, being rescued by a white male hero.

Grégoire would replace this mural and 12 others that she sees as creating an “intimidating and hostile environment”. Sensitive to the charge of suppressing debate, she would leave a small image of the original and a text on the wall explaining the change. But city authorities have come up with something else – QR codes next to the murals that passers-by can scan for more information.

The €30,000 project is part of a broader effort to modernise the comic-strip walk, created in 1991 to counter “ugly” advertising billboards.

“This work of recontextualisation really helps us to better understand certain characters,” Arnaud Pinxteren, Brussels city councillor in charge of urban renovation, told the Observer. “The works and artists are part of history, and history also includes stereotypes and a certain context.”

That view is shared by Fabrice Preyat, head of the Comics Research Group, a 14-strong research team of historians, sociologists and other scholars that is writing the QR code texts. “Taking them down would silence the debate,” he said. “I think it’s better to give everyone the opportunity to deconstruct the picture and to make up their own mind, [rather] than just saying that it doesn’t exist.”

So far the team have written texts for 50 of 68 murals, often a difficult exercise in winnowing down complex histories and artistic intentions into a few sentences.

“Behind each image, you also have an author and an artistic intention, which sometimes runs on irony, on caricature,” Preyat added, noting that the artist behind the Palais de Justice mural wanted to satirise what he observed in the courtroom.

A Tintin mural.
A Tintin mural. Photograph: Wolfgang Spitzbart/Alamy

The Baker mural is also ambiguous, he said. Preyat listed the stereotypes – “the white male saviour”, the cheetah and the sexuality of the image – but suggested that the singer, who owned one of the big cats, was playing with such tropes in her own lifetime. Research by the team highlighted in the QR text notes that in the comic-strip series featured in the mural, which was set during the 1930s and lampooned Adolf Hitler, Baker was a rare example of a character showing “moral commitment”.

But Iadine Degryse of the Brussels Studies Institute, who coordinated the texts, thinks QR codes are not enough. “We don’t assume this will solve the whole issue … and it is not enough to make people who feel offended by certain representations to feel better.”

She thinks videos could be one way of filling that gap: historical footage, testimony from artists or black Bruxellois(es) talking about how some controversial murals make them feel.

Pinxteren pointed to plans for the “feminisation” of the comic strip walk. Of 12 murals created since 2018, 11 show female characters and/or are by female artists, or male/female artistic duos. From 23 November, a new work by Dutch graphic artist Aimée de Jongh will brighten the streets of north Brussels. The scene from her book about the US dust bowl disaster of the 1930s, Days of Sand, will be close to the city limits, part of a policy of creating street art beyond the historic centre.

Meanwhile, the academics behind the QR codes hope the information is only the start. “We were quite convinced that the comic trail could also be a tool to promote citizenship and provoke discussions, with schools for example, about inclusivity, the role of public space, the place of everyone in the city,” Preyat said.