The Kongo creations assembled in this gallery represent most of the surviving pre-eighteenth-century material culture from this tradition. Created with labor and ingenuity, they were prestige items made for the local elite. Universally admired for their artistry and exoticism, Kongo artifacts were acquired by princes, men of science, and successful merchants across Europe as early as the sixteenth century. A significant number appear in the inventories of the most celebrated Kunstkammern ("cabinets of curiosities") of marvels gathered from across the world. Early Kongo artifacts were also integral to collections assembled to further the inquiry of European humanists. In such collections, they became part of a cosmopolitan mix of artifacts; with little interest in their original context, however, their Kongo origins were soon forgotten.
Comprising fewer than a dozen carved ivory oliphants and about sixty prestige cloths woven from raffia-palm fiber, these luxury arts were intended for display rather than use. They are embellished with distinctive decoration that is entirely abstract. The primary visual motif that Kongo artists endlessly transformed is a knot in which the ends of interlaced strands circle and join to create a contained form. Evidence of the longstanding use of this design is found in locally excavated seventh-century ceramics. Although Kongo artists of this period were also responsible for religious artifacts, no collected examples are known. Instead, recognition of the spiritual potency of such devotional works made them periodic targets of iconoclastic campaigns of destruction by Kongo and European officials of the Catholic Church—especially during the eighteenth century, when Capuchin missionaries sought to align the Kongo Church with Counter Reformation theology.
By the nineteenth century, many Kunstkammern were reclassified, often based on geographic criteria. Non-European items lost their prestigious associations and were relegated to newly established "ethnographic" institutions across Europe, where their original significance was further obscured. Works that initially had been fully assimilated with their Western corollaries as high points of human achievement were subsequently reduced to anthropological specimens.
The Portuguese sea captain and explorer Duarte Pacheco Pereira (ca. 1460–1533) declared Kongo luxury cloths "so beautiful that those made in Italy do not surpass them in workmanship." The earliest diplomatic exchanges between the capital cities of Mbanza Kongo and Lisbon include such textiles among the gifts sent from the Manikongo João I (r. 1470–1509) to King João II of Portugal (r. 1481–95). The Kingdom of Loango was especially renowned for its textile production. The finest cloths—an indicator of wealth and power—were owned by only the upper echelon at court and were displayed or stored as treasured possessions. A single small-scale rectangular unit of such cloth, featuring a rich surface of alternating textures and tonalities, required fifteen to sixteen days of sustained effort by a master weaver.
Kongo fiber artists embellished textiles using a distinctive technical approach. While the panel was on the loom, the weaver added geometric patterns to the fabric ground through the transverse (weft) fibers. Once the panel was removed from the loom, the artist introduced an additional layer of design and texture by hand-cutting and rubbing the raised weft fibers. While no two panels are alike, the works assembled here reveal two favored compositional approaches: an overall field of interlaced bands suggesting a network extending in every direction, and rows and columns of rectangular units framing an individual knot motif. Although some panels appear to be finished works, a few larger textiles are composed of nine or more units stitched together. Cushion covers in the form of square or rectangular woven raffia panels with decorative pom-poms and tassels along the sides and at the corners likely reflect the influence of European decorative arts.
Kongo embrace of novel design is evident in early, innovative adaptations of local idioms. At the same time, European trading partners recognized the local Kongo appetite for creative varieties of imported textiles. The premium placed on cloth as a sign of cosmopolitan prestige led to the increasing consumption of textiles from abroad and the demise of indigenous weaving traditions.