I’ll just mention, don’t miss Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara” at The Met, through October 26, 2020. An astutely organized display of intriguing objects whose creators and their cultures interacted in known and most likely still unknown ways over time throughout the Sahel (aka Central Sudan region)–as seen in intermittently shared forms, subjects, themes.
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.
“The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky“; through May 10
“Warriors and Mothers: Epic Mbembe Art“; through September 7.
I’m no specialist, but it doesn’t take much to imagine all the complications of presenting a sensitive, sweeping chronological survey of Native American art (material/document loss, context/s, etc.); I’ll venture: the Met’s done a bang-up job for cognoscenti as well as laypersons and everyone in between with its packed installation covering well over 1000 years of work created by people indigenous to the territory now known as the mid-Western United States.
Contemporary art nut that I am, I started backwards, and was thrilled to see Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s now famous painting-collage, Trade (1992; Collection Chrysler Museum). Through a series of reproductions in the mid-90s in text-book type publications, this piece was highly influential for younger artists and art scholars at the time hedging the mainstream scene from the edge of various margins. The surface area of the piece, a billboard-like backdrop over-painted with a colossal, iconic canoe, all veiled by drippy swaths of color, was rich and refreshing first-hand (as W. Benjamin noted a long time ago, repros have their ups and downs); not to mention the string of kitsch souvenirs and baseball caps with Indian logos hovering above, especially resonant with the highly publicized protests of the NFL’s D.C. franchise moniker, ongoing twenty years later. You won’t miss the Lady Gaga-ready, intensively beaded, dancing-horse design rocker-platform shoes (2014) by Jamie Okuma; and don’t miss photographer Wendy Red Star’s hyped up Photoshop tableaux dealing with overdetermined ethnic identity.
The 19th-century fashions featured are a collective highlight; it’s amazing to consider how many such intricate animal-skin-based, fringe-y and intensely beaded items made “from scratch” have not survived. (Fashionistas of a certain age might be inspired to mull, for a moment, on the some of the popular sartorial appropriations of the 1970s; look for forthcoming re-inventions.)
Late 19th-century “ledger” / notebook drawings, a syncretistic genre of Euro-colonial narrative and Native American symbolism are well-represented and as fascinating as the sprawling, painted hides illustrating spiritual visions and activities alongside prosaic ones. An array of anthropomorphized pipes brought to mind similar ones of certain Central and South African traditions (that I’m more familiar with). Likewise, all the beading brings up the uncanny history of how European beads became tropes of non-European arts around the globe.
Native American culture and history remains a very dark hole (in more ways than one) in the overall American experience and this show, with its diverse forms and laden, latent content is one channel to filling some of it in.
Especially since the controversial 1984 “Primitivism” show at MoMA, which highlighted the hegemonic assimilation of African (and a few other non-European) forms into the orbit of acclaimed Western modernists, curators of historical and traditional African art in Western institutions have been charged with certain perhaps impossible tasks, since cultural gaps remain enormous.
The Met’s current show of about a dozen sculptures by members of the Mbembe group, native to southeastern Nigeria, brings up a number of questions about and beyond the works on view. These partially disintegrated figurative wood carvings, slightly smaller than life-size, were originally attached to large drum-tableaux (presumably motion was an aesthetic factor when the instruments were in use). They date from the 17th-19th centuries, which is important, as little wood sculpture of that era from the continent has survived use, elements, migrations and upheaval. The profusion of impressive African sculpture from the late 19th and (more so) early 20th centuries that so influenced the direction of Western art and global art studies lent to the assumption that anthropomorphic sculptural traditions were highly developed much earlier—here, one collective example provides evidence. The bold, holistic forms rigid style, and bounded repertoire of (apparently) ideal poses espouse an essential artistic and spiritual majesty, though all surface details have long ago been abraded. The mother and child figures, presumably ancestral and/or otherwise other-worldly, prevalent in traditional culture across diverse groups throughout western and central Africa, were surely iconic for generations; likewise, the trophy and weapon-wielding males.
In some ways the display inevitably suggests a colonial “rescue mission.” While these objects were kept within the Mbembe for at least a few generations as mnemonic devices and votives after being detached from the drums, they were also left, at some point, to the forces of nature, possibly inhered in the concept of their very creation (think Native American totem poles), before being packed up and commodified by Europeans (and make no mistake, they’ve been valued highly in the West not least, for their “exotic” rarity, and have all been sold around.) Needless to say, all very intriguing.
Snapshot reactions to contemporary art (mainly; not exclusively) exhibited in NYC (mainly; not exclusively), by Jody B. Cutler-Bittner (art historian, art educator). Search artists, galleries, museums, key words below, and "enter."