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VAULT

“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

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