Kongo: Power and Majesty at the Metropolitan Museum (through January 3rd) is a major exhibition with 146 works borrowed from sixty different sources in the United States and Europe. Such an exhibition is well-deserved. Central Africa's Kongo civilization had one of the world's great art traditions, and a long one – going back as late as the 15th century and extending to the early twentieth. Below is a selection of the work I found most interesting; many more reproductions can be found here.
I was surprised to learn that the 15th century was a time of mutual friendship and respect between the Kongo peoples and Portugal, and, later, other European countries, and Christianity was accepted as a welcome addition to Kongo culture. The earliest works in the exhibition were items given by Kongo kings to fellow sovereigns in Europe who prized them for their invention and refined craftsmanship, and who prominently displayed them.
|Oliphant, 16th Century, ivory, 32 ⅝ x 3 inches (Palazzo Pitti, Florence).|
By the 17th century, however, European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade had a catastrophic impact on the Kongo civilization. It decimated the population, destroyed the traditional economic and political system, and lead to the abandonment of traditional arts like woodcarving and metal work by the early 20th century. In the meantime, Kongo artists took inspiration from Christian and other European imagery.
Beginning in the mid-15th century, with the baptism of some of the Kongo royalty, thousands of Christian devotional objects were sent from Portugal to the Kingdom of Kongo. Kongo artists soon reinterpreted them for their own culture, as can be seen in this expressive crucifix.
|Christ, 18th-19th century, open-back cast brass, 4 ⅜ x 4 ½ x ⅞ inches (Metropolitan Museum no. 1999.295.3).|
|Staff Finial - Kneeling Figure with Feline Head, 19th century, ivory and stone, 7 ½ x 2 ⅛ x 2 ⅜ inches (Smithsonian Museum of African Art).|
Although we don't know the names of the artists who made most of this work, we do know that these masks were made in a specific workshop – the Master of Kasadi atelier. They were collected by the Belgian Protestant missionary Léo Bittremieux in the village of Kasadi. The white chalk on the faces of the masks has a spiritual dimension having to do with purity, virtue, and the land of the dead where powerful spiritual forces reside.
|Left: Scepter - Seated Chief above Bound Prisoner, 19th - early 20th century, ivory and resin, 11 ¼ x 2 x 2 ⅛ inches (private collection); right: detail of back showing bound prisoner.|
|Ancestral Shrine Figure, 19th - early 20th century, wood, pigment, 20 ½ x 6 ¾ x 6 ¾ inches (Museum Rietberg, Zürich).|
|Installation view, Kongo Power Figures, Metropolitan Museum of Art.|
|Power Figure - Mangaaka, 19th century, wood, iron, resin, cowrie shell, animal hide and hair, ceramic textile and pigment, 44 ⅛ x 18 ⅞ x 14 ⅛ (Museo Preistorico, Rome).|
|Power Figure, 19th century, wood, iron, resin, cowrie shell, animal hide and hair, ceramic, plant fiber, textile and pigment, 43 ¾ x 15 ⅜ x 11 inches (Dallas Museum of Art).|