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 atelier, Mask, 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.
I’ve been going to a lot of dance performances lately – about 20 of them in the last few months, and I've noticed that the performing arts, modern dance in particular, can deal with emotion in a way that's sincere and authentic – something the visual arts has struggled with for a long time now.
Neo-expressionism of the 1980s was the last large popular visual arts movement that sincerely (i.e., without the pretext of irony) dealt with emotion.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1981, acrylic and oilstick on canvas, 81 x 69 inches (Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles).
But beginning around 2000, Neo-expressionism started to be regarded as overwrought and insincere; and it was felt the artists doing this type of work had lost their belief in it – their work had begun to be perceived as inauthentic. Ever since then emotion in art has been suspect, and the trend has been toward art that's intellectual, ironic, and impersonal. (Of course, there are many exceptions: Charles Garabedian, Matt Freedman and Brenda Goodman to name just three.)
But several choreographers are creating work that produces real emotions in the dancers and, via empathy with the dancers, the audience; and because the emotions in these dances are genuine, not acted or faked for the performance, they are necessarily credible and sincere.
To Being, choreographed by Jeanine Durning, was among the most intense and visceral dances I saw.
To Being, Jeanine Durning, choreographer, on the left, and Molly Poerstel and Julian Barnett in the back, September 9-26, The Chocolate Factory, Long Island City, Queens, New York (photo credit: Alex Escalante). The Chocolate Factory’s website has a lot more photos.
For about an hour, the dancers – Durning, Molly Poerstel and Julian Barnett – busily moved around without stopping, without even slowing down. They just kept vigorously doing things – running, jumping, swinging their arms, moving things around, interweaving bodies, climbing walls and hanging from the rafters (literally!).
At first their movements seemed kind of jaunty as they scurried about, but the movements eventually came to seem compulsive and driven, then disturbing, and ultimately horrifying. After an hour or so in which they obsessively drove themselves, ignoring the audience (intensionally kept small) and treating each other as another object to move or wrap themselves around, they began to wear themselves out and slow down. At that point they interacted with each other in a gentler and more human way, and made verbal and eye contact with the audience. When I saw it, one of the dancers, Molly Poerstel, moved away from Julian Barnett's comforting embrace and quietly cried. It was as if they had to wear themselves out before they could slow down, make personal contact, and feel their feelings.
The dance felt real in the way of sixties performance art and Happenings — something taking place in our real time and space. But this was more artful and emotionally intense than any Happening.
I saw several other performances that used feats of endurance to generate real feelings in the performers. There's something about exhaustion that brings out real emotions.
Alessandro Sciarroni's dance Folk-S, will you still love me tomorrow?at New York Live Arts was a Schuhplattler, a Bavarian foot-stomping folk dance that would continue, as declared at the beginning, for as long as there was one audience member left, or one dancer. The first hour was frankly boring, but after that their exhaustion brought out the character of the individual dancers, their playfulness and creativity; and the audience (most stayed) laughed with them, and cheered them on.
Alessandro Sciarroni, FOLK-S will you still love me tomorrow?
August 11, 2013, Kasino am Schwarzenbergplatz, Vienna.
It reminded me of when Ragnar Kjartansson had the indie band The National perform the same 3½ minute song over and over for six hours with awesome focus at PS1. (I saw parts of the large screen video of the concert at Luhring Augustine's Bushwick gallery, and wrote about it here.) They are solid, professional musicians, who have played together for 15 years. They interacted with the audience and each other, and subtly varied the sad song which begins:
Sorrow found me when I was young
Sorrow waited, sorrow won
Sorrow they put me on the pill It's in my honey, it's in my milk.
Toward the end of the six hours, when fatigue was over-taking them, and with the audience cheering them on, Matt Berninger, the lead singer, quietly wept as he sang.
Patricia Hoffbauer’s Dances for Intimate Spaces and Friendly People at Gibney Dance was a dance about dance – the opposite of what I've been talking about – except for the reception at end. The reception was happy and festive as we drank wine and congratulated the dancers (many of whom were beloved older dancers), but every so often a gong would ring and the dancers would return to dancing in character. At that point we became aware that the dancers were real people performing their roles, doing their jobs, as it were – just as they had been doing the whole time before, when we hadn't yet grasped it.
The cast of Patricia Hoffbauer’s Dances for Intimate Spaces and Friendly People taking a bow and breaking into a dance, Gibney Dance, NY (photo credit: Scott Shaw/New York Times).
It's significant that all these performances took place in small, intimate spaces. Grand spaces like the Koch Theater and the Met in Lincoln Center so remove you from the immediacy of the event that it feels to me like I'm watching it on TV. Of course, no matter how "real" a work of art is, there are always conventions we consciously or unconsciously accept. Even with Durning's To Being, the dance takes place at a pre-arranged time and place, for a particular audience, and it's repeated for different audiences (although it changed each time). In addition, the dancers are skilled and highly conditioned, so their movements are necessarily more athletic and expressive than that of the average person, and of course, the dancers' actions serve no practical purpose.
Nevertheless, these dances were real enough to convince and captivate me, and it was refreshing and exhilarating to experience a work like To Being that could produce such strong feelings ... authentically.
To Being, Jeanine Durning, choreographer on the left and Molly Poerstel in the foreground, September 9-26, The Chocolate Factory, Long Island City, Queens, New York.