By David Stevens
Kongo: Power and Majesty opens this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art seeking to “redefine our understanding of Africa’s relationship with the West.” And while, due to the enormity of that task, complete redefinition might be out of reach, the exhibit makes a largely successful effort to recast the Kongo Kingdom’s relationship with the West as a two-way interaction in which Kongo leaders were not simply impacted by European arrival, but engaged with it from constantly evolving positions of power.
The exhibit takes the viewer through roughly 500 years of the art of the Kongo Kingdom, which encompassed parts of modern day Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angola. At each step and with each piece, the viewer is asked to view power as it manifested in the communities and courts of the Kingdom.
Immediately upon entering you are greeted by the Padrão de Santo Agostinho (Standard of Saint Augustine), brought to the Kongo by Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão, who, acting as an emissary of King João II of Portugal, used it to mark the site of his landing. This moment would mark the beginning of an interaction that would see European colonial powers redefine political and social life in the region while mercilessly exploiting both natural and human resources.
Padrão de Santo Agostinho (Standard of Saint Augustine)
A key strength of the exhibit is how it uses the pieces to demonstrate the changing nature of power throughout the colonial period. Early interactions between Kongo and Portuguese kings were treated, at least by the kings of the Kongo, as diplomatic affairs including all of the trappings of diplomatic relations.
Ivory oliphants, believed to have been sent to Giovanni de Medici (who would become Pope Leo X), remind the viewer that the pre-colonial Kongo leaders were not politically passive, but instead saw themselves as fully active participants in global politics. Other items displayed including letters from both King Alfonso I and King Alvero III of the Kongo to their Portuguese counterparts, Kings Manuel I and Phillip III respectively, demonstrate that for over 100 years in the 16th and 17th centuries central Africa was not a political void into which Christianity and civilization stepped with the arrival of Europeans, but a region of organized political and social entities and states.
However, as the slave trade began to take hold in the region in the 16th century, the focus of the power represented in the works on display takes a different form. Rather than demonstrating sovereign efforts to engage European powers diplomatically, the figures begin to serve a defensive purpose. This continues into the 19th century when, as the slave trade gave way to colonial expansion, so called power figures or minkisi were placed “along the coast in response to incursions by colonial traders into the interior and related social concerns.” The pieces themselves seem to reflect the new political reality. Rather than the intricate detail seen in the oliphants, the minkisi are bold and imposing, despite maintaining the reflective demeanor of a wise leader. Kongolese art was now taking on a more aggressive and assertive posture and construction, and was shifting to engage a new political reality.
The most influential of the minkisi are the Mangaaka—strong, chief-like figures, believed to arbitrate disputes, punish those who do not respect the rule of law, and provide aid to those who seek relief. Often seen as representative of prototypical “African art,” these bold figures feature metal shards protruding from their chests, despite wearing the pensive expression of a wise leader. With the exhibit boasting an impressive display of 15 Mangaaka sculptures on loan from numerous collections, it is a rare opportunity to see them together.
The exhibit’s most successful moments happen when they shed light on the identity of the creators of the work. Too often in displays of African art, the hand of the artist as an individual is lost to a narrative of cultural creation in which the pieces are an artifact of a society rather than the intentional work of a skilled artist or artisan. By developing an understanding of techniques used and regions in which the work originated, the art historians were able to identify the master craftsmen who made the sculptures and ornaments that defined the community’s relationships with the powers of both the living and dead.
The exhibit presents the works of these three craftsmen: The Master of Kasadi, the Master of Makaya Vista, and the Master of Boma Vande. Despite their names having been lost to history, recognition of their individuality is an important step in developing more than an understanding of production techniques and skills. It’s about giving the people of the Kongo their full measure of dignity as individuals who made conscious decisions about the state, leadership, politics, and society.
It is by recognizing the individual contributions of sovereigns and artisans alike that Kongo: Power & Majesty gets closest to its goal of redefining Africa’s relationship with the West. By bringing individual identities, intention, and agency into the mainstream discussion of African art, they are going further than many of those who would continue to speak of Africa and Africans as one continent, with one people and one perspective.
David Stevens is the Director of the Program for African Thought at the World Policy Institute and President of Fireside Research.
[Photos courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art]