Phyllis M. Martin, professor emeritus of history at Indiana University Bloomington, is a historian whose writing uniquely engages with the visual world. In her many publications, including a chapter in the exhibition catalogue for Kongo: Power and Majesty, beautifully crafted prose about artworks brings depth to the past, enlivening it for contemporary readers. On the occasion of the exhibition's opening, I spoke with Dr. Martin about her half-century-long career as a historian; the ongoing importance of cloth in the Loango region, in the western part of the Republic of the Congo; and the relationship between art and history.
Kristen Windmuller-Luna: You've worked on the kingdom of Loango and the Kongo region for nearly fifty years. What do you think has been the biggest change in studying that region between when you started and today?
Phyllis M. Martin: I would say that in terms of historical records, not a lot has changed. I'm a bit surprised by that. My original research, for probably the first two decades, was Loango, but then later on I became interested in the colonial period [circa 1880–1960]. So one of the interesting things for me has been going back to the older sources to reconsider the kingdom of Loango for this exhibition. What has been so helpful is a great deal of additional work by anthropologists, by art historians.
Kristen Windmuller-Luna: How do artworks like these help you, as a historian, tell the story of political or economic systems?
Phyllis M. Martin: Material objects—art objects—are extremely important when you're reconstructing African societies. Where Kongo is one of the best-documented African kingdoms, the Loango kingdom is much less well-served by the written sources. As an anthropologist has said, [objects] are "commentaries by themselves": they're not made by foreigners, they're not made by Europeans. These are coming from the people themselves, their creativity and their identity.
Kristen Windmuller-Luna: In your essay in the exhibition catalogue, you write extensively about cloth's role in the Loango economy. How did that system function?
Phyllis M. Martin: We have to consider that cloth is a way of storing value. Cloth was also an essential ingredient in society and culture. It was not just a piece of fabric with wonderful weaving and designs; it was much more than that. When the Dutch arrived around 1600, they talk about how the king—the Maloango—had warehouses and storehouses bursting with cloths, copper, and ivory.
And so you ask, "Why cloth?" Cloth has many advantages, and we can think of it functioning like a currency; a currency needs to be portable, it needs to be durable, and preferably it needs to be locally produced. The region was described in one late sixteenth-century source as "the land of palms," which was important because raffia palm trees provided the raw materials which weavers then made into threads to create these textiles.
Kristen Windmuller-Luna: Where would the textiles included in the exhibition, which are all luxury items, have fit into the Loango economy?
Phyllis M. Martin: The Maloango and other wealthy and powerful persons controlled the production of cloth. There were certain gradations according to the labor and creativity involved in their production. The Maloango had control over master weavers, and only they were allowed to produce these incredibly high-value, beautiful pieces. There were four or five gradations of fabric, and commoners would wear very simple cloth. When you're exchanging goods, obviously, this kind of luxury cloth is very high value, so it could be used as a currency—it's like a one- or ten- or a hundred-dollar bill. Several could be used together to vary the value in an exchange. A common person might be wearing just a very basic weave—no colors, no design. In our society we also measure people by the clothes that they're wearing; it's of course much of the same thing. There are many commonalities with European society when you stop to think, especially at this time [the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries].
Kristen Windmuller-Luna: We always hear about the Kongo and Loango customers being difficult to please from the European traders' perspective, rejecting cloth and making the traders very frustrated.
Phyllis M. Martin: Records from ships' captains show them writing desperately to their employees in Amsterdam or wherever saying, "We can't sell this stuff" when the cargo wouldn't sell in the Loango coast markets. Overall, the significance of cloth continued in the period when manufactured cloth from Europe had replaced raffia cloth. One of the paramount issues in Kongo economies was what you might call "people power"; it wasn't so much the accumulation of land that was important, but human resources, in a region that was not densely populated. To be powerful, a man had to acquire a large household with both male and female dependents. Marriage contracts added women, who had both productive and reproductive powers.
In such negotiations, cloth could be highly significant. And by the way, the importance of cloth continues today, at least as essential gift-giving: when I was in Brazzaville [in the Republic of the Congo] in 1989, I met up with a man who had a PhD from American University. He told me that when he went to arrange a marriage contract with the family of his wife—who was also a university graduate in Congo—he had to take top-quality cloth to her mother.
The conversation about cloth continued at the display of mpu, prestige caps made of knotted raffia palm fiber.
Phyllis M. Martin: These caps are so beautiful, and so amazing. The first mention that I've come across was in an account by an English trader in the Loango capital about 1607. When a man succeeded to an office, he was given the cap of the previous owner—who may have died—or a new one. Basically the taller, floppy ones belonged to someone of very high ranking. There's a picture [in Olfert Dapper's Naukeurige Beschrijvinge] of the Maloango with a very floppy hat and the claws of a leopard on it, which were an additional symbol of status.
Kristen Windmuller-Luna: Photographs document individuals wearing mpu caps as late as the 1970s; did you see them in use when you were in Congo? Were they combined with European dress, as was done in earlier centuries?
Phyllis M. Martin: I have seen men in business suits, but wearing a cap like this. Certainly in 1989.
I mean, to a European eye, to see an African chief with a waist cloth wearing a military jacket seemed very odd, but when you think of the rarity value—I mean right to this day, so obviously in our culture, rarity is so very prestigious.
The conversation moved into the exhibition's final room, where twelve "mother and child" figures dating from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century are displayed.
Kristen Windmuller-Luna: Is there anything that surprises you when you see these objects?
Phyllis M. Martin: Well…to see so many of them! They speak to me of motherhood because I know the importance of women as mothers [in the region]. It's not just their reproductive capacity; it's their productive capacity with their labor in the fields, the maintenance of households, and so on. In the Republic of the Congo, the notion of motherhood was very strong; it was one of the reasons why families wouldn't give up their girls to the missionaries when they arrived in the late nineteenth century, and instead sent boys for education.
Kristen Windmuller-Luna: So it's the ability to produce and reproduce in a way that's very different from just that mother and child relationship?
Phyllis M. Martin: It's an intrinsic part of being a mother. There were high mortality rates that even worsened with colonial conquest, when violence escalated and new diseases were introduced: to have a child is to have a child. Women were extremely important in the economy and were also powerful in some other spheres of life.
If you look at the back of any of them, you see the same patterns are similar to these diamond and geometric patterns that you see on the cloths. What I'm noticing actually are the hats, caps, or hairdos; sometimes it looks like a cap when it is a hair arrangement. A traditional Congolese hairstyle was pointed, as you can see. It was created by shaving the head, shaping the hair, and then smearing the hairdo with coconut oil. As for the hairdos, the most elaborate would tend to be worn by wealthier, more powerful women. Like the textiles, it's about broadcasting status. In the colonial period, the hair didn't continue so much, but certainly the hats did.
A multi-tiered drum created at the turn of the twentieth century sparked a discussion of the continuity of legends and iconography in Loango.
Phyllis M. Martin: There were two animals that were particularly important in Loango culture. One was the leopard: it was a royal animal which no one could kill without permission from the king. The other was the elephant, about which there are many traditions. For example, when the first settlers came, they followed paths that had been trodden by elephants. When the first Maloango arrived, one foundational myth tells of how he crossed the Chiloango River while seated on an elephant. The admiration for the elephant derives from its strength and power as we see here, where a man holding a multi-tiered drum sits on the back of an elephant. Also, when Europeans arrived in Loango in the early seventeenth century, they wrote of royal graves and cemeteries marked by elephant tusks. The admiration for the elephant derives from its strength and power.
Kristen Windmuller-Luna: What do you think it meant to carve a drum with this imagery of the foundational myth around 1884, when the colonial period was just taking hold in the region? To me, it's an evocative statement about the continued power of Loango.
Phyllis M. Martin: Yes, in many ways, such artifacts are revealing [of] the times in which they were made, integrating the present and the past. The need for art historians and historians to collaborate in understanding their significance is a comment on the very interdisciplinary nature of African history. As I said, these are made by the people themselves; these are not European records. They're just so precious. And this goes back again to the importance of material objects as sources of history.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited and condensed from a conversation held in the exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty on September 17, 2015.