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‘In the Most Desolate Places We Need the Most Beautiful Art’: Discussing ‘Kongo’ at the Met

Kongo peoples (Kongo Kingdom, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, or Angola), Luxury Cloth: Cushion Cover, 17th–18th century, raffia and pigment. ©PITT RIVERS MUSEUM, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD/PITT RIVERS MUSEUM, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Kongo peoples (Kongo Kingdom, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, or Angola), Luxury Cloth: Cushion Cover, 17th–18th century, raffia and pigment.

©PITT RIVERS MUSEUM, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD/PITT RIVERS MUSEUM, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

On Sunday afternoon, hundreds gathered in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium of the Metropolitan Museum in New York to hear a panel discussion forming part of the museum’s latest special exhibition, “Kongo: Power and Majesty.” Unprecedented in its scope, the show presents 146 works of art that reflect the tumultuous 500-year period (from 1500 through the 1900s) of the central African Kongo region (today forming the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola).

The panel’s mandate was formidably broad, to “examine Kongo society’s history and artistic traditions in the context of changing relations between Africa and Europe over half a millennium.”

The Met’s African art curator, Alisa LaGamma, who organized “Kongo: Power and Majesty,” was first to speak, and provided a brief historical overview and context for the exhibition. LaGamma, describing this period as a time “encompassing the age of exploration, the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism,” expanded on the museum’s approach to presenting this difficult history through the lens of art from the region.

Primarily, as Lagamma explained, the story of the “intense cruelty and ruthless exploitation [of] the Kongo communities” has been conveyed through much of the work itself. “The toll these tragedies exacted on local populations is described in the detailed depictions, chiseled in relief around the surface of elephant tusks by Congo sculptors,” she said.

The next speaker, David Van Reybrouck, a Belgian historian and author of Congo: The Epic History of a People, described his reaction when confronted with these tusks as one of “a vague feeling of sadness, and despair.” Expanding on this, Van Reybrouck made a key point. “Although all [these] objects come from the region you see on the map […] their presence as museological artifacts [is] exclusively from Western European and North American private collections,” he said. (More than 50 collections have loaned work.) “Regardless of whether these objects were stolen or brought, it still says something.”

In indirect acknowledgment of this, LaGamma provided the museum’s rationale behind presenting this historical work, which many might consider not theirs to present. “In ‘Power and Majesty’ we seek to provide you with a sense that this was no isolated backwater, but rather a region whose leadership actively sought to reach outward,” said LaGamma, referring to the exhibit’s depiction of the Kongo region’s once great power, which was slowly diminished by Western powers over time.

Aiming to redress such prior ahistorical imbalances, “Kongo: Power and Majesty” can be viewed as an attempt to shape a new, more complex narrative of this region and its artistic traditions.

Speaking as a practicing Congolese artist himself, dancer and choreographer Faustin Linyekula expanded on this idea of narrative. Quoting Sony Lab’ou Tansi, a poet from Brazzaville, Linyekula roughly translated an introduction to one of the author’s books. “Everything has fallen on the ground, even the earth itself has fallen on the ground.” Linyekula explained this quote as an accurate description of the state of his home country (“a inherited pile of ruins”). Linyekula continued, quoting a response to Tansi by another writer from Togo: “But the people are still there.”

Kongo peoples (Yombe group, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, or Cabinda, Angola), Mask, ca. 19th to early 20th century, wood and pigment. COURTESY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART/STEVEN KOSSAK, THE KRONOS COLLECTIONS, NEW YORK

Kongo peoples (Yombe group, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, or Cabinda, Angola), Mask, ca. 19th to early 20th century, wood and pigment.

COURTESY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART/STEVEN KOSSAK, THE KRONOS COLLECTIONS, NEW YORK

Lying at the center of “Kongo: Power and Majesty” are 15 wooden, shrapnel-laden men, known as the Mangaaka. Originally commissioned by Kongo chiefs as a way to assert their diminishing autonomy, these sculpted figures were meant as power symbols, ritualized through ceremony and consecrated by a priest who imbued the objects with a spiritual force that lends them their name.

Much of the extant knowledge around these figures is thanks to the efforts of the conservators and scientists of the Met. LaGamma described that her team—through use of CT scan, X-rays, and chemical testing of microscopic wood and fabric samples—discovered “deliberate interventions that suggest that the spiritual efficacy and potency of these figures was disassembled by their original owners, before being relinquished to foreign invaders.” LaGamma argued that this revealed the strength of the Kongo people, whose compliance with European powers was rooted in subtle sabotage. “It is the ultimate compliment to their Kongo authors that their creations resonate with viewers today, so that their achievements are assumed to be timeless,” she added. “This exhibition celebrates their bold ingenuity and resilience in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.”

But for the work truly to resonate in the present, Van Reybouck said, viewers should acknowledge that history persists. He described Congo as always in possession of what “global capitalism needed,” historically and today, despite remaining one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world, “a classic examples of a failed nation state.” And then turning his attention to “Kongo: Power and Majesty,” he posed the critical questions, “Who is benefitting from all this? Who is profiting?”

Taking this issue even further, Linyekula steered the conversation towards who controls the narrative of history. “With time,” he said, “we’ve come to exist only through the outside eye—how the world, how the West, shapes our image, how that image, being the dominant image, occupies all mental spaces, and even our own mental spaces, because even in the Congo we look at ourselves through the eye of Europe and somehow I’d say we’re still in a colonial state, in that legitimacy has to come from outside.”

Using “Kongo: Power and Majesty” then as an example of this, Linyekula went on to speak of the “responsibility” which must come in confronting his country’s ruins.

He said, “It’s in the most desolate places that we need the most beautiful art, which is why I take it as my own personal responsibility to work and develop my work from there, to try as much as possible to help share that work with audiences there, and maybe that’s where I’d join David in a certain sadness after seeing this magnificent exhibition here…How many Congolese people will get to see this? It’s not for us, it’s about us, but it’s not for us.”

Absorbing Linyekula’s powerful words, the auditorium fell silent. Sitting there, I began thinking about how this exhibition is as much an historical account of the Kongo with a K as it is about Linyekula’s present-day country, with a C, and that its title, “Power and Majesty,” which was intended to honor the former Kongo, equally offers a descriptor for the Western institutions that house its relics today.

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