Magazine article Artforum International

Keys to the Kingdom: Linda Rodriguez on "Kongo: Power and Majesty"

Magazine article Artforum International

Keys to the Kingdom: Linda Rodriguez on "Kongo: Power and Majesty"

Article excerpt

LOOKING AT two 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 Cao 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 Cao 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. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.