Kongo Across the Waters is one of the most remarkable exhibitions of the art of Africa and the African diaspora ever to appear in Atlanta.
The exhibition, the signature event of Africa Atlanta, a year-long series of art exhibits, lectures, performances and conferences, showcases 111 extraordinary objects from Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa, ranging from spectacular Central African proverb lids (wooden container lids carved with allegorical scenarios) to even more spectacular trumpets, drums and stringed instruments, and most spectacular of all, minkisi power figures. It will be on view at the Carter Center from May 17 to September 2
It uses them to tell a story that upends many of our assumptions about Africa and African cultural survivals in the Americas.
The story is one of creativity and continuity in life and art. The peoples who were part of the 15th- to 19th-century Kingdom of Kongo and surrounding region absorbed foreign influences into their own cultures, turned them into something distinctly their own, and they carried that creative capacity and those basic cultural models with them into slavery in North America and the Caribbean. Those Kongo influences are still evident in the work of African American and Caribbean contemporary artists.
Kongo Across the Waters breaks this complicated story into easily understood constituent parts. It begins with the most startling examples of Kongo cultural hybridity: bronze crucifixes cast by 18th- and 19th-century Kongo artisans. These reflect the general styles of their European precursors but include such creative touches as a female figure nailed to the cross. (This is thought to be an homage to Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, a visionary woman whose attempt to restore the deposed royal dynasty led to the defeat and enslavement of her followers, many of whom the Kingdom of Kongo sold to European slave dealers.)
These excellently crafted crucifixes exist because Kongo kings adopted and made strategic use of Portuguese Catholicism, along with other aspects of Portuguese culture. After the 18th-century Kongo kingdom collapsed into warfare among competing claimants to the throne, that early cultural exchange slowly transmuted into Portuguese colonial domination.
Another long process of cultural and political conversation between European religious and trade missions and local chiefs ensued after Belgium took over adjacent territories. King Leopold’s well-known economic exploitation of the misnamed Congo Free State ended centuries of Kongo’s autonomous cultural and commercial acquisitions.
That complicated history is no more than the background for some amazing works of art, but it’s important to realize just how in control of the exchange the various rulers and members of the Kongo nobility were. They and their subordinate chiefs may have cheerfully accepted European badges of honor as marks of their power in the same spirit of creative re-invention with which their European contemporaries accepted the exotic arts of China and Japan.
For example, Kongo artisans copied imported Toby jars, British-made representations of fat, squat Englishmen, which nobles incorporated into prestigious tomb offerings, just as similarly high-ranking Europeans used Chinese jars and vases to convey their breadth of cultural sophistication.
The wall texts convey information that will come as a surprise to anyone but specialists. For example, Kongo artists engaged in very distinct stylistic innovation that allows us to identify individual creators. One early-20th-century artist, Voania Muba, signed his statuary, which apparently was sold exclusively to Europeans, and other artists signed their drawings etched into calabashes, also sold to Europeans.
Family-friendly story cards help visitors navigate the conceptual trek from the spectacular Kongo religious art at one end of the exhibition to the diaspora religious objects and Kongo-inflected contemporary art at the other. These fictional first-person narratives are based on the lives of a number of historical individuals, including a Central African chief, a house slave in Annapolis, Maryland, and a Kongo village chief sold in 1858 to Palmetto Fire Brick Works in Edgefield, South Carolina.
Though some of the narratives have a children’s-book flavor, they are not dumbed down. In fact, they provide a great deal of essential connective information not communicated elsewhere.
The section devoted to Kongo cultural survivals in the Americas seems a condensed rush through an enormous topic. Though the exhibition’s previous presentation of objects found in archaeological excavations on the sites of Southern plantations prepares viewers, it requires some careful label reading to realize that the identical-looking sets of carved canes and woven baskets are juxtapositions of 19th-century examples from Kongo with those from the American South.
Yet, the transition from Kongo objects to contemporary artistic creations — by way of a quick survey of memory jars and African American yard art — makes for a stunningly satisfying conclusion to the exhibition.
Work by such artists as Atlantan Radcliffe Bailey; Renée Stout, subject of the recent “Tales of the Conjure Woman” at Spelman; Cuban José Bedia; Haitian Edouard Duval-Carrie; and Congolese Steve Bandoma demonstrate that Kongo-inspired creativity is alive and energetic in its self-aware inheritors.
Kongo Across the Waters is accompanied by a gorgeous, hefty, eponymous volume. Scholarly but accessibly written, it expands upon the exhibition’s insights. This is, however, decidedly a case in which the exhibition has an emotional impact far beyond anything that the book can deliver.
Scale and detail make an enormous difference when dealing with art, and the exhibition curators — Susan Cooksey of the Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville, Florida, Robin Poynor of the University of Florida and Hein Vanhee of Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa — have assembled a collection of objects that will haunt viewers long after they have left the galleries.
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