Brussels tries to calm locals’ anger over ‘racist’ murals – with QR codes | Belgium

In the center of Brussels, near the monumental Palais de Justice, is a brightly colored cartoon painted on a strip of a scruffy four-storey building. Playing on the stories of crime and judgment unfolding in nearby courtrooms, the mural depicts heaven and hell. In the blue sky, a cartoon policeman hovers over a topless woman sunbathing, while a white officer watches a black man; below, the red-tailed devil looks grumpy.

The artwork, taken from a popular cartoon that first appeared in the 1980s, is just one of 68 murals celebrating the rich history of comics in Belgium, or comicsincluding characters such as Tintin, Lucky Luke and the Smurfs.

But some locals are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the artwork. “I am deeply shocked by some of the murals,” said Pauline Grégoire, co-founder of the feminist activist group Noms Peut-Être. She said she felt unwelcome when she saw such stereotypical images of the topless woman seemingly ogled like an object near the courthouse.

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

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

Grégoire would replace this mural and 12 others which she considers to create an “intimidating and hostile environment”. Sensitive to the accusation of suppressing the debate, she would leave a small image of the original and some text on the wall explaining the change. But city officials have found 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 approach to modernizing the comic book trail, created in 1991 to counter “ugly” billboards.

Mural Pass me the sky – illustrating the afterlife – in the streets of Brussels. Photography: Jennifer Rankin/The Observer

“This recontextualization work really helps us to better understand certain characters,” said Arnaud Pinxteren, Brussels municipal councilor in charge of urban renewal. Observer. “Works and artists are part of the story, and the story also includes stereotypes and some context.”

This point of view is shared by Fabrice Preyat, head of the Comics Research Group, a research team made up of 14 historians, sociologists and other academics who write the texts for the QR code. “Taking them down would silence the debate,” he said. “I think it’s better to give everyone the opportunity to deconstruct the image and form their own opinion, [rather] than just saying it doesn’t exist.

So far, the team has written texts for 50 of the 68 murals, often a difficult exercise in summarizing complex stories and artistic intentions in a few sentences.

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

A Tintin fresco.
A Tintin fresco. Photography: Wolfgang Spitzbart/Alamy

Baker’s 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, played with such tropes in her lifetime. The team’s research highlighted in the QR text indicates that in the comic book series featured in the mural, which was set in the 1930s and ridiculed Adolf Hitler, Baker was a rare example of a character doing proof of a “moral commitment”.

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

She thinks that videos could be a way to fill this gap: historical images, testimonies of artists or black people. Brussels residents talk about how certain controversial murals make them feel.

Pinxteren mentioned projects for the “feminization” of the comic strip promenade. Of 12 frescoes created since 2018, 11 show female characters and/or are female artists, or male/female artistic duos. From 23 November, a new work by Dutch graphic designer Aimée de Jongh will light up the streets of northern Brussels. The scene from his book about the American Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s, sand days, will be close to the city limits, as part of a policy of creating street art beyond the historic centre.

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