PRINT February 2016


“Kongo: Power and Majesty”

Power figure (Mangaaka), standing female with child, Kongo peoples, Vili group, Loango coast (Cabinda, Angola), nineteenth century, wood, beads, glass, fiber, copper, resin, pigment, 15 1/4 × 5 3/4 × 5 1/2".

LOOKING AT elephant tusks in the exhibition “Kongo: Power and Majesty,” we began to see so much more than was at first visible: Carvings in a sixteenth-century specimen intersect in elaborate looping knots around spiraling bands, while in another—this one from the late nineteenth century—men are chained together and walking atop similar spirals. This shift from abstraction to figuration underscores an aesthetic imperative to depict the tragedy of colonialism and slavery that, in four centuries, would enslave and displace five million individuals from West Central Africa, out of twelve million from the entire continent. That the Kongo artists who carved the tusks turned from a vernacular geometric decoration to representational narrative also suggests an adaptation of new influences from Portuguese, French, and Belgian colonizers.

These tusks were but two of an array of objects assembled by curator Alisa LaGamma at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, in an exhibition that presented chronologically expansive yet intimate trajectories of the transformations of an impressive and swiftly changing Kongo civilization (located in present-day Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Republic of the Congo). In its dynamic presentation of the lives of the objects and their creators, the show directly engaged us in pressing issues regarding the colonial contexts of the Atlantic world through the lens of the Kongo: the aesthetic ramifications of trade and exchange, and the roles of religious conversion, political power, and social healing in cultural life. A focus on the juncture of art and colonialism in the Kongo also presented an important corrective to previous exhibitions of Kongo art in the United States that emphasized only the later nineteenth century or privileged the diasporic transformations of Kongo visual culture in “New World” contexts.

The objects on display spanned five centuries, from a ca. 1482 pillar—planted on the coast of Angola by the Portuguese explorer Diego Cão to stake his “discovery”—to nineteenth-century power figures known as Mangaaka. The pillar marked a geotemporal framework that connected Europe and the Americas to the Kingdom of Kongo and spurred material exchange and ethnographic collecting. Explorers and traders like Cão procured carved ivories and luxury raffia textiles (both of which featured abstract designs of looping knots or lozenges) from the Kingdom of Kongo to send back to European Kunstkammern. The currents of early-modern globalization that ferried these items from Africa to Europe also carried requests and petitions from early rulers of the Kongo to their European counterparts. Archival documents on display demonstrated the extent of these relationships and their wide-ranging cultural effects. In 1517, King Afonso I of the Kingdom of Kongo wrote to King Manuel I of Portugal to request religious objects such as crucifixes and images of Catholic saints to support the work of missionaries. Kongo artists soon produced these crucifixes in brass and wood, and Catholicism spread, albeit with local variations. These signs of Kongo Catholicism appeared not just in Africa but also in the seat of Catholic sovereignty. A 1608 miniature gold medal on display, cast in the Vatican, commemorates the visit of the Kongo ambassador Antonio Manuel to the Holy See. He wears a knotted cape, made of raffia, and kneels before Pope Paul V. In this way, the exhibition succeeded remarkably well in demonstrating the bidirectionality of material and aesthetic exchange.

Amid the presence of European colonial leaders, local Kongo chiefs still exerted strong control well into the colonial period, and their accoutrements reflected the symbolic power of women in daily life. Small sculptures of female figures decorated the wooden prestige staffs of chiefs who aspired to enact their own political will. The strength of women emerged through their stoic poses as they knelt with straight shoulders, staring ahead. Some nursed children and called attention to their miraculous life-giving ability, while others morphed into potent animal hybrids. Many had tattoos on their backs in the same abstract rhombuses as the early raffia textiles. While the collected textiles became ethnographic artifacts in cabinets of curiosity and lost the contextual specificity of markers of pivotal moments such as birth, marriage, and death, the prestige staffs represented the quotidian and ongoing struggle in the Kongo to invoke political control against (and sometimes in conjunction with) European colonialist projects. The exhibit also highlighted the work of two identifiable artists, known as the Master of Kasadi and the Master of Boma-Vonde, who made freestanding sculptures of women and children, reflecting an attempt in African art history to move away from designations of tribal style or anonymous attributions.

A great majority of the exhibition’s objects operated at the compelling intersection of social healing and projections of power. Particularly notable were fifteen broad-faced Mangaaka figures, each carved by a master Kongo sculptor from a single piece of wood. Roughly four feet tall, they stood at attention in their own gallery with hands on hips, ready to act. Ritual specialists hammered iron nails, screws, and tacks into the figures’ chests and arms as symbols of the supplications and desires of local men and women. Priests placed sacred substances into the hollowed and protruding stomachs and behind the figures’ eyes to activate their power. The Mangaaka only emerged as a genre in the nineteenth century, from societies long battered by colonialism. To witness this impressive group was to be overwhelmed by the violent trauma and stolid hope implicit in their forms.

Only one of the Mangaaka remained fully intact at the Met, with a textile skirt and beard of animal hair and clay. The absence of such clothing and facial hair on most of the figures echoed that of their sacred substances; the same priests likely removed them once the Mangaaka ceased to be employed in ritual functions. The loss of an element that was already invisible to outsiders served as a poignant metaphor for the exhibition’s force: We struggle to comprehend the lived realities of the men and women who experienced such tumultuous times. Yet they left us with art that illuminates their ambitious engagement in (and responses to) early-modern networks of exchange, religious reform, the effort to maintain power, and continual attempts to heal.

Linda Rodriguez is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University.