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On October 13, I got together with Nile Davies — a Columbia University PhD candidate in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies — at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see and discuss the exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty. This is a rare exhibition, collecting objects from 60 institutions and private owners across Europe and the US, in an attempt to countermand the exoticism of the central African region and its civilization that was historically impelled by the objects’ display in princely European cabinets of curiosities. The show promised to challenge misconceptions of the Kongo and offer new understandings of the art it produced, so we went to test that premise.
* * *
Seph Rodney: Okay. My first impression — this is the second time I’ve seen this show — my first impression was just confusion. I really didn’t understand the didactic text.
Nile Davies: Yes.
SR: I’ve nailed down why I felt that way now, having come back and reread it. It starts off saying, “Until the 19th century, regional leaders jockeyed to maintain political autonomy and control of their commercial arteries. Local traders relayed people and goods to and from the interior while Europeans were confined to the coast. By 1884, intense rivalries with and among European powers resulted in” — and they never actually say the word until later on — “colonization”.
SR: Why are they being so resistant to just saying Europeans came in and took over?
ND: They drew up the maps: Congo Free State, Belgian Congo.
SR: Right, right. So initially I was thinking, “Why are you being so weird about this?” And the thing is, later on the wall text takes a very direct [approach]. Let me read it: Belgium’s policies led to “the decimation of her main populace by disease, the reduction of the agricultural system to subsistence, and the dismantling of the existing commercial networks and the abandonment of traditional vocations.” So basically you lay waste to a culture.
ND: Completely. Yes.
SR: It seems like it takes them a while to work up to it.
ND: I think they’re trying to take away the focus too much from the art. So it’s like this artistic tradition exists, independent of the history that happened, even though the two are obviously very closely linked. They’re trying not make the colonialism overdetermine what happened.
SR: What impressions did you have?
ND: I found it very interesting learning about the collaborative history of exchange between Europe and Africa — the Portuguese and the Congo empires. There was mutual admiration and respect initially. The trading of gifts, and that sort of thing.
SR: You’re talking about the cushion covers. There was a real admiration expressed.
ND: Exactly. Over time that deteriorated, with the slave trade kicking off.
SR: Part of me wants to say this reduction of people to property is a European thing, but this exhibition shows us that it is not, because it talks about how the local administrators, heads of households, and traders brought people from the interior to the coast to trade for …
ND: For goods. Material.
SR: Right. I guess I’m showing a little bit of historical naïveté, but I assumed that that wasn’t done a lot, but apparently at least in the Congo region it was.
ND: It was done on a smaller scale than the mass deportation by the Europeans themselves — that happened a little bit later. That whole tradition is completely separate to colonialism. The structures that had existed in Congo before the scramble for Africa and everything, those were completely dismantled after a certain point.
SR: Which is why these kinds of objects are fetishized in the first place, right? Because we don’t have the Raffia cloth anymore, we don’t have the cushion covers, we don’t have the ivory horns. The ivory horns are beautiful.
ND: Yeah, exactly. So beautiful. But again, at one point in history these were prized by Europeans as being exquisitely beautiful material objects on a par with, if not superior to, those created in Europe. At some point the narrative was switched. They become ethnographic, anthropological artifacts from an inferior peoples.
SR: Right. And they’re presented in that ethnographic way as if to say, “Wow, how did these people ever manage to do this?”
ND: Exactly. And of course the culture that created them has long since been decimated, so it’s like nostalgia almost, this curiosity for these objects that they themselves played a huge role in destroying. The irony.
SR: It is ironic. If you divide the world into two groups, say, groups that were colonized and groups that colonized — my ancestors, who were colonized in Jamaica, we have a similar kind of nostalgia for these objects, because they supposedly point to our greatness. The Europeans have nostalgia for these objects because I guess they point to …
ND: Something authentic? I’m not really sure.
SR: I thought that the power figures at the end were so much more powerful. The presentation of that carved wooden figure with the nails in it, which seems like a kind of violence is embedded in its making.
ND: Yes, and the masks as well. Although there were only a few of those, even though mask-making is such a dominant tradition in Congo. I thought the religious significance of the material culture, like the masks, wasn’t discussed in depth. I don’t know if that’s because Congo is kind of Christianized very early on. That’s one of the first pieces of wall text: they converted to Christianity, to Catholicism, in the 17th century. Again, this may be an omission of detail there.
SR: Yes. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have the story around whether it was a process of slow attrition or whether there were particular moments or events that shocked that system.
ND: The exhibit seemed to say, “One day they were doing their own thing, and the next day they’re all Catholic.” I found it bizarre. There’s something they’re not telling us.
SR: I agree with that. They’re eliding part of the history there. I also [would have liked] a more thorough discussion of the differences between the spiritual objects, the Nkisi, the Nkondi, and the last one, the Mangaaka. They seemed to be in a hierarchy.
ND: In size as well as anything.
SR: That’s right. I still wasn’t clear on exactly how they were employed.
ND: Maybe they were communal objects. I got the sense that they belonged to a village and they had a special relationship with the crafter, who was also spiritual, the witch doctor. Then they had this legal function also in settling feuds and things like that.
SR: I missed that.
ND: Say if you were having an argument with your neighbor, a dispute over some property or something, you would go to the spiritual leader, pay a small sum for the chance, and he would summon the spirits of arbitration against the person you named, and then they would have to settle up with you or they’d be in trouble. Powerful instruments as a way of keeping control after the breakdown of society.
SR: Precisely. That’s one of things I think is a through-line in the exhibition: the signifiers of — and objects that are used to wield — power. Power suffuses the exhibition: not only the obvious violent military power of colonialism, but also the spiritual power of these objects, the power of craftsmanship. There is something about craft, I think, that is about self-recognition.
ND: Definitely, yes. I think it really shows the character of the Congo people, beyond the stereotypical allegations that say that Congo has no history.
SR: Yes. I think all in all it is a fascinating exhibition. Although I do think there are moments when it falters, when [it feels like] the curators are trying to hedge their bets.
ND: I agree. I thought it was clear in some parts and kind of evasive in other parts. You still leave not really knowing everything you think you should know.
Kongo: Power and Majesty continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 3, 2016.
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