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The Belgian Federation

Belgium is considered by most people to be a relatively insignificant country tucked into northwestern continental Europe. And while the country is indeed small, it is far from insignificant. In fact, this little patch of land has been the focus of conquest for almost every European empire since Julius Caesar’s armies drove out the Celts from the area around 54 AD. Belgium, as a result, never really developed a singular national identity. Instead, two very distinct cultural groups arose that were often at odds with one another, but decided to enter into the “marriage contract” that defines the current nation of Belgium because they felt more in common with one another than with their neighbors France and the Netherlands. These two groups, the Dutch-speaking Flemings to the north and the Francophone Walloons to the south, have since the 1980s depended on a complicated federal parliamentary system to maintain their “separate but [presumably] equal” cultures. The image I created is, therefore, an attempt to reflect the existing nature of the Belgian political system in all of its complexity.

The first item of note is what Roland Barthes would call the linguistic message. At the bottom of the image is a sign that reads, “Welcome to Belgium”. This functions as an anchor for the image, as the reader now knows that the image is supposed to represent Belgium in some way. The sign also has the name “Belgium” translated into Dutch, French, and German, the three official languages of Belgium. By using the three different languages, this signals the reader to interpret the image in a way that acknowledges the relationships between these linguistic cultures. As a result, the sign points to both the denoted message of the image (“This is Belgium”) as well as the symbolic message of the image (“Belgium is complex”), both of which will be described in more detail below.

The denoted, or literal, message in this particular image is that there was the Atomium monument with six flags painted onto the spheres that make up the structure. However, this means little if someone does not know what the Atomium is or what the flags represent. So before discussing the symbolic message of the image, it is probably best to describe the elements of the image individually. The Atomium is a landmark in the Belgian capital of Brussels that was built when the city hosted the 1958 World’s Fair. It is supposed to be a scale replica of a crystallized iron molecule, a modern art style typical of the time period. The flags represent the six different political entities within Belgium and include the royal standard, the national flag, and the flags of Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels, and the minority German-speaking community. Unfortunately, since monuments and flags are symbols in themselves, it is hard to disengage them from the symbolic message, which is why the literal message for this image is so shallow.

The symbolic message is the most important one, especially since my image is an attempt to represent visually the state of the Belgian government. The placement of the flags is especially important to the symbolic message, since it represents the inherent relationships between the different political entities. For example, the purple flag at the top of the image is the royal standard of King Albert. This represents the fact that Belgium, as a constitutional monarchy, considers the royal family to be part of the Belgian identity, but only as a political figurehead. In the center is the national tricolor flag of Belgium, representing the central federal government. To the right are the Red Cock of Wallonia and the Red Lion of the German community. These are on the same side because Wallonia acts as a separate government, with the German community fully contained within the Wallonian province of Liege. To the left are the Black Lion of Flanders and the Yellow Iris of Brussels. While Flanders and Brussels each have their own governments due to Brussels being bilingual, Brussels is located completely within Flanders. It should be noted that Flanders is monolingual in Dutch and Wallonia is monolingual in French, which is why the central government decided to give each province more authority within their respective regions.

By superimposing the flags over such an iconic Belgian landmark, I am arguing that the relationships between the various political groups are as interdependent as the atoms within an iron molecule. If even one of the groups is removed, the structure will, if not collapse, change its nature and weaken the whole. This matters because the Flemish separatists, the subject of my research, have been attempting to free themselves from the political structure of Belgium for the past 50 years. But I believe that the current political structure is so interconnected that, like the breakdown of an iron molecule, their attempt will prove devastating for all of Belgium. If the current political deadlock is any indication (Belgium has not had a functioning government in over 240 days), then this process may already be well underway.


Flag images are Public Domain.
The Atomium image by Flickr user o palsson, Creative Commons Licensed.
The Welcome Sign (base) image by Flickr user J. Stephen Conn, Creative Commons Licensed. Text on the sign is my own.

Brief Description: 

This image shows a major Belgian landmark, the Atomium, with the various national and subnational flags of Belgium superimposed onto the structure. This ultimately represents the internal political structure of Belgium as I understand it.


This is actually pretty wonderful. I love it because there are several layers of meaning - the essay really helps to reveal them! The political connotations are there, without overpowering the image. Nice work!

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