Exhibitions/ Kongo: Power and Majesty/ Kongo Exhibition Blog/ Body Language in Kongo Art: A Choreographer's Perspective

Body Language in Kongo Art: A Choreographer's Perspective

Elinor Hitt and Da'Von Doane in Claudia Schreier's Vigil, 2015. Photograph by Nir Arieli

From the Editor:

Choreographer Claudia Schreier reflects on the role of body language in Kongo art through the lens of dance. With a focus on the core as both a physical and symbolic entity, she draws parallels between perceptions of male and female forms and dance technique.

The parallels in both structure and symbolism between the objects in the exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty (open through January 3) and dance as a codified art form are endless. Unexpectedly, though unsurprisingly, I was immediately drawn to some of the abstract objects in the exhibition that lead the eye along complex paths such as the exquisitely intricate weaves and multilayered tones of the luxury raffia cushion covers and the carvings that wind around the length of the ivory tusks.

Top: Luxury cloth: cushion cover, 16th–17th century, inventoried 1883. Kongo peoples; Kongo Kingdom, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, or Angola. Raffia, pigment; 18 1/2 x 9 1/2 in. (47 x 24 cm). Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford (1886.1.254.1). Bottom: Oliphant, 17th century, inventoried 1642. Kongo peoples; Kongo Kingdom, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, or Angola. Ivory; L. 27 1/8 in. (69 cm), Diam. 2 3/4 in. (7 cm). Linden-Museum Stuttgart, Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde

Some of the most influential choreographic works of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries are as notable for their distinctive ensemble patterns as for their unique expressions of the individual human form. The elaborate motifs of these objects bring to mind the inherent and universal pursuit of balance, symmetry, and resolution.

In the Mangaaka power figures featured in the exhibition, one thematic element in particular is apparent: the concept of the core being both physical and symbolic and how it relates to the expression of power in both the male and female form. In dance, strengthening the muscles of the torso is crucial to properly executing steps, both in classical ballet and in the modern dance techniques that emerged in the early to mid-twentieth century. Ballet in particular is meant to look effortless, as any display of exertion destroys the intended effect, and a controlled core serves as the foundation from which all movement should initiate.

Observing the Mangaaka figures from the side, I noticed that their torsos, chests, and elbows are shifted forward on their center axis, giving an imposing and authoritative appearance. Were a person to emulate the pose, they would discover immediately that it is necessary to contract the abdominal muscles in order to maintain rigidity and balance at this tilted angle. In this sense, the body language of the Mangaaka figures subtly implies a strength and sense of power underlying the more outwardly aggressive elements such as the embedded metals.

Power Figure (Nkisi N'Kondi: Mangaaka), 19th century. Kongo peoples; Yombe group, Chiloango River region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, or Cabinda, Angola. Wood, iron, resin, ceramic, plant fiber, textile, pigment; H. 46 1/2 in. (118 cm), W. 19 1/2 in. (49.5 cm), D. 15 1/2 in. (39.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace, Drs. Daniel and Marian Malcolm, Laura G. and James J. Ross, Jeffrey B. Soref, The Robert T. Wall Family, Dr. and Mrs. Sidney G. Clyman, and Steven Kossak Gifts, 2008 (2008.30)

Perhaps as intriguing as what these Mangaaka figures display is what they do not. Each of the Mangaaka figures features a stomach cavity into which priests placed a variety of sacred materials. Evidence suggests that Kongo priests deconsecrated many of the Mangaaka figures before releasing them from their original symbolic roles within the community, indicating that removing the materials hidden within the figure's core rendered it powerless. That the priests considered the concealed symbolic power of the figure to be far greater than the physical power of the figure may provide insight into how the Kongo people perceived the importance of the physical body in relation to the spirit.

A view of the stomach cavity of the Power Figure (Nkisi N'Kondi: Mangaaka)

At first, the Mangaaka figures and the female sculptural depictions appear to be in direct contrast to one another. Unlike their domineering male counterparts, the female figures are seated in various kneeling and cross-legged positions, which may suggest deference. Many are depicted nursing a child, suggesting warmth and tenderness, but there is no mistaking femininity for weakness or submission in these figures; their backs are straight, shoulders placed squarely back, chins held high, and gazes set intently forward, all of which emanate from a controlled physical core.

Master of the Boma-Vonde Region. Figure: Seated female nursing child, 19th–early 20th century. Kongo peoples; Yombe group, Kai Kuinba village, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kai Kuinba village; Republic of the Congo; Cabinda, Angola. Wood, kaolin, glass; H. 10 3/4 in. (27.3 cm), W. 5 in. (12.7 cm), D. 4 in. (10.2 cm). Collection of Drs. Daniel and Marian Malcolm, Tenafly, New Jersey

This visual display of strength is further reinforced by the concept of the womb as the ultimate form of core power, one that is essential to the survival of the community. This power is acknowledged in the use of these seated figures as staff finials for leaders, as well as in the way that many of these figures are depicted wearing the mpu, or prestige cap, a symbol of authority that was reserved for the male members of the community.

One of the most striking female figures in the exhibition is the staff finial featuring the Ngoyo Queen giving birth while holding another child close to her chest, an item thought to be part of the official royal insignia of the Ngoyo. In this moment, she is simultaneously her strongest and most vulnerable as she kneels and calls upon the power of her womb to bring forth life.

Staff finial: Ngoyo queen giving birth and holding child, 19th–early 20th century, inventoried 1930. Kongo peoples; Woyo group, Cabinda, Angola, Landana region. Ivory; H. 4 5/8 in. (11.7 cm), W. 1 5/8 in. (4.1 cm), D. 1 5/8 in. (4.1 cm). Musée du Quai Branly, Paris

The figure's posture is unmistakably erect, and the symmetry of the form coupled with the stoic facial expression suggests command and poise in the most unlikely of circumstances. As with the Mangaaka figures, the implication of the power of the queen's core are twofold, depicting an impressive feat of physical control and a symbolic representation of protecting the community by furthering its lineage.

The strength and vulnerability of these Kongo female figures evoke one of the main principles of ballet, which is to execute immense feats of strength and virtuosity without any outward display of exertion. In my own work, I often call upon my female dancers to execute a cambré, or arched bend in the back, with arms curved overhead and the palms facing outward—a pose that may, depending on the context, convey weakness, susceptibility, or surrender. Paradoxically, these poses prove to be some of the most difficult to execute, as they require the utmost control of the abdominal muscles to maintain form and balance.

Left: Puanani Brown and Kevin Shee in Claudia Schreier's Anomie. Photograph by Lauren Kaye. Right: Elizabeth Claire Walker and Amber Neff in Claudia Schreier's Anomie. Photograph by Albert Ayzenberg

Similarly, in the classical story ballets Romeo and Juliet and Manon, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, the final pas de deux portray a female character at her frailest and most vulnerable: Juliet in "death" and Manon on the verge of it. In both, the female dancer must summon immense strength to aid her partner in executing the choreography without giving any indication of the effort being put forth. To perform this type of duet successfully, the dancer must employ their core muscles to the fullest as all other parts of the body—the arms, legs, and even the head—must appear disengaged.

Left: Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Opera House. Photograph Anthony Crickmay © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Theatre Collections. Right: Florian Magnenet and Isabelle Ciaravola in Kenneth MacMillan's Manon. Photograph by Anne Deniau

Observing Kongo: Power and Majesty from the perspective of a choreographer, I connected most deeply to this seemingly incongruous display of immense power and sensitivity when viewing the objects. Dance as a performance art often is most affecting when it serves as a physical manifestation of an emotion or experience, and it was a treat to have the opportunity to identify recurring themes throughout the exhibition that relate to dance both physically and symbolically.

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