From big names to newcomers, these are the 25 most prominent figures and collectives shaking things up in Belgium this year. Whether they visibly made their mark and established themselves in their respective field, gave back considerably to their scene or sparked debate by shining a light on a certain issue, consciously or otherwise, these are the people that deserve a mention this year. Make sure to check out Part II and III here.

Aimé Mpane for bringing colonial memory right to the African Museum’s doorstep

Belgo-Congolese painter and sculptor Aimé Mpane (1968) has been wowing the world for a while now with his societally leaning, historically significant oeuvres. From being represented by San Francisco’s Haines Gallery and Brussels’ Nomad Gallery to installing a sculpture at the entrance of the Embassy of Belgium in Kinshasa, the artist isn’t one known to shy away from taking a stand. In fact, just earlier this year he was part of the group exhibition The Congo Beat at the British auction house Bonhams, where artworks were sold off to benefit not one but two charities. Visiting his Anderlecht studio – where he spends most of his time if he’s not in his native Kinshasa –, one is struck by the assortment of vibrant contoured portraits and mosaic-like tiling, all made of plywood, or his life-size hollow and punctured sculptures. With keen observations on the overlap between place, identity and the human condition, his oeuvre exceeds that of postcolonialism. It’s no surprise then that Mpane won the Royal Museum for Central Africa’s open call, subsequently creating the sculpture Congo, nouveau souffle to be placed on the doorsteps of the museum come its grand reopening on Sunday 9th December after a five-year renovation.

Hana Miletić for her collaboration with Globe Aroma

In a time and place where textile-making is often reduced to a leisurely pastime, Hana Miletić (1982) reinvigorates this ancient global practice with renewed sociopolitical implications: the Brussels-based multimedia artist of Croatian origin is no stranger to the politically charged, aptly transitioning between the communal and subjective. Having had a particularly busy year, Miletić was invited to a number of group exhibitions in Belgium alone – not to mention elsewhere in Europe – as well as a solo exhibition at WIELS, easily the highlight of 2018. Touching upon pressing themes of migration, scarcity and social neglect, Dependencies was celebrated for highlighting the oft-forgotten or even outrightly ignored social realities in public spaces today. What do we as a society care about? What do we determine as “valuable”? Yet perhaps most poignant – even if it went slightly unnoticed – were her felt textile workshops hosted under the framework of Dependencies, and in collaboration with Globe Aroma, Brussels’ community art centre for newcomers. From as late as three years ago, Miletić sought to reintroduce community-based weaving, reminiscent of her own roots as well as nodding to 70s materialist feminism and the notion of making gender. Together with fellow female artists from Globe Aroma, Miletić hosted this series of workshops during the summer to not only initiate a revaluing of gendered cultural practices through the prism of material culture, but also create a wider discussion on the present socioeconomic and political realities of Fortress Europa.

Timeau De Keyser and Pieter Dumoulin for capturing Brussels’ lifeline

The fall of 2018 saw the premiere – specifically at Film Fest Gent and BFI London Film Festival – of Étangs Noirs, a cinematic gem by Timeau De Keyser (1988) and Pieter Dumoulin (1989). The pair’s careers have been interweaving for quite some time now: these once childhood friends from Ghent found each other later on, with the former working heavily in theatre direction while the latter handled all things cameras and lenses. In fact, as a cofounder of Tibaldus, De Keyser entrusted Dumoulin with the role of being the theatre company’s in-house photography director. And though this is their first feature-length film, it follows their short film De Reconstructie which came out three years ago. Étangs Noirs closely follows Jimi, living in the Cité Modèle neighbourhood on the north-western outskirts of Brussels, as he obsessively attempts to find the rightful owner of a misdelivered package. The actors were largely street cast, with the script itself written and revised in close collaboration with them resulting in an intriguing storyline and persuasive acting. Perhaps most touching of all about this hour-long film is Dumoulin and De Keyser’s deft and complete capturing of Brussels, precisely by visualising the lifeline that is the city’s Metro network. Following Jimi’s ventures, the crew films scenes in the Metro carriages amongst Brussels’ cosmopolitan, and unknowing commuters, picking up snippets of real-life conversations and stealing authentic interactions. The fact that two Flemish directors went for a French-speaking film is not to be understated either. Moreover, that the two non-locals were able to capture so accurately the light, feel and textures of the capital city and its subway system is no light feat – Étangs Noirs breathes Brussels onto our screens.

Mehdi Kassou for giving hope to Brussels-bound refugees

Laments and cries have been heard throughout the country as Theo Francken, the Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration continues to shutdown indispensable refugee reception centres, following in the footsteps of his predecessor Maggie De Block. Yet despite populist desires for exclusionary politics and subsequently branding itself as a politically unwelcoming state, studies will show that in fact, Belgium (like the rest of Western Europe) is actually on the lighter end of the spectrum when it comes to the influx of asylum seekers. In response to this newfound hostile climate, an assemblage of associations and volunteers came together in 2015 to establish the Citizen’s Platform for Refugee Support. Also referred to as BXLRefugees, this grassroots association make sure that the settlement camp that was forming in Park Maximilien – nestled just outside the Immigration Office – is covered for all things food, healthcare, accommodations, activities, psychological support and education for all. This was around the time Mehdi Kassou entered the picture: the Clabecq-raised Belgo-Moroccan has always worked in press and media, climbing his way up the corporate ladder until he landed a more than comfortable job at Samsung. Yet as he was nearing the end of his contract, Kassou could also no longer ignore the refugee situation in Brussels, and more specically Park Maximilien. He started to get involved by donating goods, reaching out to his social network for aid, connecting newcomers with his contacts and even setting up fundraisers. No longer able to justify his white-collar salary with the surrounding misery, Kassou decided to leave the corporate world earlier this year in a bold move and dedicate himself entirely to the Citizen’s Platform. Sharing the presidency with his partner Adriana Costa Santo – who he actually met in 2015 volunteering at the Park –, he handles all things press and social media while the latter coordinates the volunteer team and manages finding housing for all the newcomers every night. Superheroes do exist.

Vincent Blondel and Luc Sels for bridging their universities together

Exactly 50 years ago, Belgium’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic University of Leuven experienced a historical shift that would rock its foundation: in 1962, Belgium underwent a constitutional reform regarding official language use which incited considerable tensions between the two dominant linguist communities. The University too saw its fair share of student demonstrations which lead to violence, as separationist tensions between the French- and Dutch-speaking communities within the bilingual university rose over the following year, until it finally peaked in 1968. The University split, whereby the Flemish academic community remained on-site at KUL while a new, francophone institution was created at Louvain-la-Neuve. Since then, the two sister universities were largely estranged – until this year. This spring, the two newly assigned rectors of KUL and UCL – Luc Sels (1967) and Vincent Blondel (1965) respectively – astonishingly reversed a half century-long feud when they joined forces for a new landmark partnership between KUL and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As the first joint international project involving both universities, the Belgian academic community were rejoiced to see both rectors going on the first ever social overseas mission together since 1969. To add to everyone’s surprise, this newfound partnership was seemingly unprovoked or forced, proving the time old saying that time heals. There’s strength in unity once you put your differences and pride aside.

Maoupa Mazzocchetti for hacking five radios at the same time

For his second LP Gag Flag, The Word Radio resident Maoupa Mazzocchetti adopted a character called Snippet Boy, a fictional avatar who first came to life in his live shows, and now on his album sleeve. This hardware enthusiast’s new project combines acoustic guitar and plugged-in instruments, resulting in a quirky exploration of the pop music format. To promote his release on Low Jack’s record label Éditions Gravats, not only did he host a show on our radio, but also at Kiosk, Amsterdam’s Red Light and French Rinse and Lyl radio stations. On September 24th from 14h to 19h, Brussels DJ and producer Florent Mazzocchetti took over all five radios for an hour each. Of course, as he couldn’t be at two places at the same time, he sent pre-recordings to the audio-only radios. As some of the radios also share Facebook lives, he sent a couple of his DJ friends to play at his place, wearing Snippet Boy’s famous mask and yellow shirt. A witty promo move to match a brilliant EP.

Mothers & Daughters for spreading queer love

For better or worse, male love tends to overshadow all else, not only in heteronormative settings but within the gay community, too. The fact that Mothers & Daughters, a lesbian bar and meeting place which took furore over the city this summer, is the first of its kind since The Gate closed its doors in 2003 proves this point all too well. At the end of 2017, the team behind Belgo-Dutch magazine Girls Like Us took over Beursschouwburg’s bar-cum-café for three days, installing their Mothers & Daughters proto-type. Inspired yet unsatisfied, the success drove Alice Versieux, Byrthe Lemmens, Delphine von Kaatz, Jessica Gysel, Joëlle Sambi Nzeba, Katja Mater, Marnie Slater and Robin Brettar to set up a space of their own: the two-month long pop-up lesbian bar located in the heart of Brussels, specifically on Quai aux Briques / Baksteenkaai. For lesbians and by lesbians, Mothers & Daughters was envisioned as an all-inclusive and intersectional space for the capital city’s queer women. Celebrating mixity while retaining the core ethos behind safe spaces – that of a shared mind view and intolerance towards any form of marginalisation or discrimination – this ephemeral bar incited a strong sense of community, familiarity and love. Yet taking a further step, Mothers & Daughters didn’t limit itself in providing a space, but also offered critical food for thought regarding the more concrete issue of the gender wage gap, breaking down their menu prices to those privileged and those without. Last but not least, an exhibition complete with a publication titled Brussels Almanack Lesbian consisted of a collection of Belgian herstories and testimonies, oft-ignored or unnoticed. A space of celebration, recognition, appreciation and education. Fingers crossed this won’t be the last we see of them.

Joëlle Bachetta (c)

You Are Here for weaponising architecture

One would not be amiss to notice the significant and obvious changes occurring in Brussels’ Northern Quarter, and all signs point directly to World Trade Center 1. Amidst white-collar commuters, refugee settlements, abandoned buildings and gentrification, this once inherently corporate skyscraper – a relic of a rather controversial utopia based on the so-called Manhattan Plan of the 60s – now houses a number of the capital city’s most forward-thinking and critical practices and agencies. All eyes were fixed on this corporate tower this year, as Architecture Workroom Brussels became enthralled in the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam’s ambitious dual edition, covering four years rather than just two and Brussels as well as Rotterdam. Dedicating its programme to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the 2016 Paris Agreement, the Biennale promises a commitment to think critically and unflinchingly about a much-needed alternative to our current resource economy, social ecology and poverty. In fact, The Missing Link theme precisely implies the pressing need to figure out how to convert critical thinking and ideas – of which we are already aplenty – into real life change. The Brussels offshoot You Are Here is a veritable proof of the power of collaboration: AWB’s Joachim Declerck, Flemish Bouwmeester Leo Van Broeck’s and Up4North lead the way of converting the WTC1 into an exhibition, public debate forum and workspace with the support of Vlaamse Overheid and Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest. Focussing on the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt area – one of prominent urban and economic significance – You Are Here assembles local and European actors in architecture, urban planning, politics, grassroots collectivism and critical theory to explore possible futures for this delta region. 2018 has already seen two phases with over 400 actors invited to the space, while 2020 is set to be the year of presenting said concrete results.

Basic Moves for putting Belgian electronic music back on the map

Brussels-based DJ and producer Walrus describes his record label Basic Moves as an adventurous journey through the outer limits of house, techno and electro. The label not only issues new releases, but also represses old, forgotten unreleased gems. With five solid releases this year – Dj.Booth, Secret Way, Circadian Rhythms, Caustic 14 and THE SECT3000 –, The Word Radio residents confirmed their strong contribution to the local and global electronic music scene. Dj.Booth’s release turned the spotlight on the Maghreb electronic scene with Driss Bennis, a Moroccan DJ signed with the label Casa Voyager. Besides this, the duo made up of Michiel Claus and Ailsa Cavers, better known by their monikers Walrus and islas respectively, was also very present in the nightlife scene, as they were invited by numerous party organisers in Belgium, the Netherlands and Berlin, also throwing their own events for good measure too. A veritable contribution to the Belgian electronic music scene, elevating it both locally and internationally.