Metropolitan Museum of Art
“Kongo Power and Majesty”; through Jan. 16, 2016.
This show presents art from the 16th through early 20th centuries collected from the now extinct Kongo kingdom, a region that extended across boundaries of the present nations, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, and Angola. “Kongo culture” as such evolved from a collection of related smaller ethnic groups, which effected stylistic differences in techniques and object types, as emphasized in this display. Also included are a cache of archival documents (maps, texts) by Europeans that reflect on early relations between the two continents; along with a few photos of votives in situ that bring home their distanced de-contextualization in the museum setting.
From a purely visual standpoint, an extensive display of raffia cloth remnants impresses mainly collectively, as it casts light on an evolved craft and design enterprise. Beyond the visual: the largely lost history of this traditional textile production via cultural repression and economic exploitation by Europe, metastasized through the slave trade in which Kongo elites eventually participated. Such anxious undercurrents simmer throughout the show. Put another way, the paradox and irony of what the Europeans collected and subsumed barely scrapes the surface of what they directly or indirectly destroyed.
The heavy missionary hand of early Christian contact is evidenced in a number of 16th – 18th century cast metal and carved wood ritual and status objects (such as staffs), where Kongo spirits perch on crucifixes or alter European-type images of the baby Christ and St. Anthony. On the other hand, a group of small-scale, delicately carved mother and child wood figures, more so than counterparts or syntheses of the Marian icon, are universal humanistic (for lack of better term) exemplars in the particular. Close looking revealed notable variety within the canonical seated type characterized by large heads and geometric stock poses. Through represented scarification, mixed-media details and iconographic gestures, they convey (individually and collectively) communal artistic and spiritual knowledge.
The final gallery comes around directly to power (as per the exhibition title) with an arresting display of just-smaller-than-human-scale wood votives known in English as “power figures”–nkisi nkondi (singular). This umbrella Kongo term can encompass many ideas and forms, but is frequently associated with an aggressive male being known as Mangaaka, of which most of the dozen or so known sculptural incarnations from the late-19th to early 20th centuries are featured here. They comprise an intimidating familial pack, with menacing grimaces and stuffed medicine bags dangling from their potent, protruding, cowrie-studded navels. It seems such apotropaic creations, on the one hand related to aspects of traditional Kongo ritual belief, had come to address also the extreme social violence of the colonial era culminated under Belgian despot Leopold II. The sculptural approach is rough, deliberate, and infused with suggested animation through a forward-leaning, bent-knee balance they share. Fascinating to behold, they also spark contemplation with regard to provenance, specific intention and accrued meanings.
The wall texts emphasize points of blending between European and Kongo cultures partly in mutual admiration early on. Of course, little of the Kongo perspective on the initial alliance can be conveyed. And the contextualization stops short of addressing why more is not known about the power figures, only three or four generations old and now virtually obsolete. While core information about Kongo ritual objects was not widely shared with outsiders or even all members of the communities that produced them, colonial disruption of ancestral continuity underpins so much missing African heritage.
It is widely known that the Mangaaka type and much other sculpture in the show were the result of tripartite negotiations between client/patron (which might be communal), artisan, and priest (nganga), with central focus on use and intended effectiveness. Despite an unbridgeable abyss, and even as a melancholic note lingers, there are surely many benefits to shining global art world light onto these proud and intriguing ancestral remains–if in an inevitably less than ideal context. Yet again, let’s keep in mind the “invisible” Kongo descendants in this aesthetic history, metaphorically speaking.