Thursday, October 15, 2015

Kongo: Power and Majesty

By Charles Kessler

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).
This beautiful 16th-century ivory trumpet is a purely decorative luxury object and, according to the exhibition website, "it likely entered the Medici collections in Florence as a token of appreciation from the Kongo sovereign Afonso I (r. 1509–42) to Pope Leo X (r. 1513–21), the former Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, for appointing his son Henrique a bishop."

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).
Below, the head on the woman's body is probably a lion – which is interesting because lions weren't indigenous to this part of Africa; the imagery was probably derived from European iconography.
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).
On the left: Master of Kasadi atelier, Mask, 19th - early 20th century, wood, pigments, buffalo hide and hair, metal tacks, 11 ⅜ x 6 ⅞ x 5 ½ inches (Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium). On the right: Master of Kasadi atelierMask, 19th - early 20th century, wood and pigments, 10 ½ x 7 ½ x 5 ½ inches (Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium).
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.
The imagery in this carved ivory scepter speaks of power: a bound and gagged slave (right photo above) is behind an enthroned chief thus embodying the chief's power to keep his dependents from harm by subjugating rivals. The tip of the scepter contained a packet of medicines that empowered the chief, and the vine that the chief is chewing on was used to repel witches.
Ancestral Shrine Figure, 19th - early 20th century, wood, pigment, 20 ½ x 6 ¾ x 6 ¾ inches (Museum Rietberg, Zürich).
Female figures, which were symbols of the cycle of life, were used as burial shrines. This one simply and beautifully depicts a sense of loss.
Installation view, Kongo Power Figures, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The greater part of this exhibition, and a major coup, is an installation of fifteen of the twenty 19th-century "Power Figures," or Mangaaka, that are known to exist. The Mangaaka were created as a response to the turmoil caused by colonialism. They acted as conduits to the spirit realm for the purpose of aiding petitioners against opponents, settling conflicts, and protecting the community from European colonizers. 
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).
The power figures were a collaboration between artists who carved and adorned the figure, and priests (ngango) who invested them with sacred powers. The Mangaaka were relatively large, around four feet tall, and they aggressively lean forward as if prepared to confront challenges. (This can be seen better in the installation view above.) Their stomach cavities and hollows behind their eyes contained sacred materials which were activated by hammering a nail into the figure.
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).
The colonial powers considered these figures so powerful that they would promptly seize them during military campaigns. But when possible, the ngango removed the sacred materials, as well as the beards and outer garments, before it was confiscated, thereby deactivating their powers.

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