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Kongo: Power and Majesty

Kongo: Power and Majesty

English | Français | Português

September 18, 2015–January 3, 2016

Exhibition Location: Special Exhibition Gallery, first floor, Gallery 199
Press preview: Wednesday, September 16, 10:00–noon


A landmark presentation that will radically redefine our understanding of Africa’s relationship with the West, Kongo: Power and Majesty, opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art this September, will focus on one of the continent’s most influential artistic traditions, from the earliest moment of direct engagement between African and European leaders at the end of the 15th century through the early 20th century. The creative output of Kongo artists of Central Africa will be represented by 146 works drawn from more than 50 institutional and private collections across Europe and the United States, reflecting five hundred years of encounters and shifting relations between European and Kongo leaders. From a dynamic assembly of 15 monumental power figures to elegantly carved ivories and finely woven textiles, the exhibition will explore how the talents of Central Africa’s most gifted artists were directed toward articulating a culturally distinct vernacular of power.

The exhibition is made possible by the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund and the Diane W. and James E. Burke Fund.

The story of Central African art has been told until now with a focus on the 19th century. This exhibition will take a longer view, establishing that Kongo’s great sophistication and spectrum of artistic expression was a continuum, from the time of the first incursions by Europeans along the coast through the colonial period.

“The electrifying Mangaaka power figure acquired by the Met in 2008 was the impetus for this exhibition,” said Alisa LaGamma, the Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator in Charge of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “On view in our galleries for the past seven years, this iconic symbol of law and order has been the object of universal fascination, so we decided to delve deeper into the history and circumstances of its creation. While exploring Kongo’s centuries-long cultural interaction with the outside world, and the full spectrum of Kongo aesthetics, our research led to new discoveries and to this unprecedented opportunity for the full play of the artists’ ingenuity to be admired across a range of genres.” 

European Powerbrokers and Kongo Luxury Arts

Nearly a decade before Christopher Columbus set foot in the New World, the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão disembarked along the coast of modern day Angola. This turning point in world history brought about significant exchanges of material culture across the Atlantic. Cão commemorated his arrival in 1483, as an emissary for King Joặo II of Portugal, by marking the site with a limestone monument that had been carved in Lisbon. That limestone landmark will now mark visitors’ entry into Kongo: Power and Majesty.

Among the earliest African artifacts preserved in the West are prestige items created by Kongo artists who were active in a series of distinct polities positioned across a region that spans what is today northern Republic of the Congo, Angola, and southern Democratic Republic of the Congo. In addition to the celebrated state known as Kongo, the exhibition considers its less well-known culturally related regional neighbors such as the Kingdom of Loango. The Kingdom of Kongo’s elite embraced literacy from the earliest moment of contact, and the survival of their writings on religious and political matters set the kingdom apart, making it one of the best documented pre-colonial African states. Featured in the exhibition are 16th- and 17th-century missives from Kongo sovereigns to their European counterparts, affording a critical African perspective on world events.

From the same period—and a focal point of Kongo: Power and Majesty—are the creations of regional artists that were prized for their refined workmanship and rarified materials. These exotic ivories, inscribed with delicate geometric designs, and woven raffia fiber textiles adorned with related abstract motifs, entered into the collections of European princes and wealthy merchants from the 16th through the 18th century. Most of these, including a series of ivory oliphants believed to have entered the Medici collections under Giovanni de’ Medici (1475–1521) (Pope Leo X), appear to have been sent by Kongo leaders as diplomatic gifts. The scope of this little-known Kongo pre-colonial corpus has never before been presented in an exhibition. Kongo: Power and Majesty will introduce a critical mass of these exquisite, rarely displayed works that are dispersed internationally. Among the celebrated and prestigious historical collections lending to the exhibition are the Royal Kunstkammer of King Frederick III of Denmark in Copenhagen, the Württemberg Kunstkammer in Stuttgart, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II’s Prague Castle collections, and Queen Christina of Sweden’s Royal Collection, Stockholm.

For the first time, Kongo masterpieces will bring to life a critical chapter of Central African history that precedes colonialism by some 400 years. These early Kongo creations attest to the exceptional complexity of Kongo artistry predating contact with Europe as well as the degree to which its most talented practitioners immediately embraced the ensuing influx of ideas introduced from the outside.

A Container for Power in Kongo Society: The nkisi

The seminal form of expression associated with African art is that of the power figure, or nkisi (pl. minkisi). In the West such works are invariably conceived of in generic terms, but Kongo: Power and Majesty will explore some of the specific historical contexts that led to the development of such complex works. Following his adoption of Christianity in 1491, the Kongo sovereign Nzinga a Nkuwu called for the destruction of all local idols, or minkisi, in his kingdom. At the same time he and successive generations of Kongo kings requested that Christian devotional artifacts be sent from Europe. The exhibition will feature examples of Kongo Christian works that were initially cast from these prototypes as well as those that eventually reinterpret Christ according to a Kongo aesthetic. Outside the Kongo capital of Mbanza Kongo, Christianity was less influential and the creation of minkisi continued to be a significant dimension of the region’s devotional life. Although a Portuguese Jesuit Father is reported to have at once burnt some such “fetishes” and sent others back to Portugal in 1631, no examples of minkisi are known to have been preserved in the West before the second half of the 19th century, when massive numbers of works were gathered through European colonial networks. In recent decades the work of specialists in the fields of Kongo religion and anthropology has defined nkisi as a portable shrine designed to house a spiritual force. Among the important questions addressed in Kongo: Power and Majesty are why no examples of this tradition were preserved in the West before the colonial moment; what were the respective contributions of a Kongo carver and priest to the assemblage of such creations; and what deliberate interventions altered the condition of certain nkisi before they were released into the outside world.

Kongo Chiefly Attributes of Power

Kongo art is associated with the intimidating and aggressive aesthetic of nkisi sculptures depicting male subjects riven with hardware. However, such works were intended to be experienced as part of a far broader spectrum of representations identified with power and leadership in Kongo society. Just as prominent a visual metaphor to the definition of Kongo power is the nurturing and regenerative role of women. Kongo: Power and Majesty will present the full array of forms that framed the person of a Kongo leader—from the distinctive regional regalia of knotted fiber capes and caps studded with leopards’ claws, to staffs of office with finials that take the form of exquisitely carved ivory miniatures, to the seated female figures carved from wood that are positioned in shrines above a Kongo chief’s final resting place. 

Kongo Master Hands

Kongo society’s most gifted artists were in great demand by patrons who required their talents for the production of a diverse array of forms of expression. While the identities of individual sculptors have not been documented, their achievements are known through the surviving artistic record of their creative output preserved in Western collections. Over the last generation, the work of art historians has made evident the aesthetic qualities and carving styles associated with a number of distinctive workshops. These have been identified according to the sites associated with their creations. The presentation of Kongo: Power and Majesty will assemble for the first time the majority of works produced by three of Central Africa’s most talented master sculptors: the Master of Kasadi, the Master of Makaya Vista, and the Master of Boma Vonde.

The Ultimate Manifestation of Law and Order: Mangaaka

A catalyst for this exhibition is a great Kongo landmark that has been a centerpiece of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection since 2008. This massive sculpture of a formidable Kongo leader leans forward to confront the viewer with hands on hips. He is at once a physically commanding and deeply reflexive presence. The carved wood figure was conceived as the nkisi receptacle for an immaterial force known as Mangaaka, invoked over the course of its use through the hardware added to its exterior by petitioners. Over the last seven years this work has undergone close examination and study in relation to comparative examples by art historians, conservators, and scientists. Discussion of these findings with an interdisciplinary international network of specialists in museums and universities has contributed to a more nuanced and expansive appreciation of the significance of this outstanding sculptural achievement.

During the second half of the 19th century, an unprecedented array of minkisi were developed along the coast in response to incursions by colonial traders into the interior and related social concerns. Mangaaka, the undisputed “king and master” among these, was the personification of an abstract force charged with the arbitration of trade disputes. As the supreme adjudicator of conflicts and protector of communities across the Chiloango River region, it was the most ambitious and monumental sculptural form developed as a high point in Kongo expression. Mangaaka features attributes of chieftaincy and a physiognomy that might obliterate those who defy authority and the rule of law. Its displeasure was manifested through chest ailments and spitting blood. It likewise had the power to cure these literally and symbolically acute physical ailments. Slightly under life-size, the carving of Mangaaka’s figurative container required the talents and experience of a master sculptor. Because of the dramatic scale of the representation and the consistency of the iconography, the Italian art historian Ezio Bassani had at one time proposed they were the work of a single atelier. Close study of the corpus, however, has made it evident that they relate to a single genre but are in fact the work of a number of different artists. This will be made apparent to an international public for the first time in Kongo: Power and Majesty. Approximately 20 of these impressive Mangaaka figures survive in institutional and private collections in Europe and the United States. The exhibition will provide an unprecedented opportunity to view 15 of them together, from institutions in Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland, and the United States.

Credits and Related Resources

Kongo: Power and Majesty is organized by Alisa LaGamma, Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator in Charge of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Coordination and support have been provided by James Green, Research Associate; Christine Giuntini and Ellen Howe, Conservators; Marco Leona, David H. Koch Scientist in Charge, and Adriana Rizzo, Associate Research Scientist, both of the Department of Scientific Research; Helina Gebremedhen and Remi Onabanjo, graduate interns; and Kristen Windmuller-Luna, graduate intern and Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, all of the Metropolitan Museum. Exhibition design is by Brian Butterfield and Yen-Wei Liu of the Met’s Design Department.

A major catalogue—published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press— accompanies the exhibition, with essays by Alisa LaGamma, John Thornton, professor of African history, Boston University; Phyllis Martin, professor emeritus of African history, University of Indiana; and Josiah Blackmore, professor of the language and literature of Portugal, Harvard University. The publication incorporates original research undertaken at the Met by Ellen Howe, Conservator in the Department of Objects Conservation; Adriana Rizzo and Marco Leona, research scientists, Department of Scientific Research; and Christine Giuntini, Textile Conservator, Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

The catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Education programs will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition, including a Sunday at the Met on October 18 at 3:00 p.m. in the Museum’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. A panel will examine Kongo society’s history and artistic traditions in the context of changing relations between Africa and Europe over half a millennium. Featured speakers will be photographic artist Jo Ractliffe, author David Van Reybrouck, and dancer-choreographer Faustin Linyekula. This multi-disciplinary Sunday at the Met program will also include a round-table discussion moderated by critically acclaimed journalist and New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch. 

The exhibition will also be featured on the Museum’s website, including a blog that will host weekly posts by a variety of contributors—designers, scientists, musicians, historians, and others— offering fresh perspectives on the themes of the exhibition. Among the topics addressed will be the significance of body language in Kongo sculpture, exhibition design, scientific analyses undertaken on Mangaaka power figures, and gender and power dynamics in Kongo art.

The exhibition will be highlighted on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter via the hashtag #KongoPower

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August 17, 2015

Image: Power Figure (Nkisi N’Kondi: Mangaaka). Kongo peoples; Yombe group, Chiloango River region, Cabinda, Angola, 19th century, inventoried 1898. Wood, iron, resin, ceramic, plant fiber, textile, cowrie shell, animal hide and hair, pigment, H. 461⁄2 in. (118 cm), W. 181⁄8 in. (46 cm), D. 133⁄4 in. (35 cm). Manchester Museum, University of Manchester (0.9321/1)

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