West African Art and Photography

Power Figure from the Vili group, 19th cent

Power Figure from the Vili group, 19th cent

If you haven’t already seen the Kongo: Power and Majesty  exhibit at the Met, put it on your list of things to do before January 3rd!  This show has 150 works from 60 institutional and private lenders a wide variety of statues, masks, bells, finials from the 19th century, as well as some terrific textiles from the 17th and 18th cent.  Many of these objects were worn or used everyday, or had religious or ceremonial significance for the Kongo peoples, but they were collected as curiosities by the Europeans.

Perhaps the best way to begin is with the words of the exhibit’s curator, Alisa LaGamma:  “People tend to oversimplify their understanding of Africa, with this cliché that artworks were never created as art per se. Well, we have to redefine our understanding of what art is. Art is the thing that touches, the things that matter the most in our existence, and [what] inspires us to rise above our ordinary behaviors. Here, we’re trying to move beyond an overgeneralized understanding of Africa and Kongo and explain that it’s home to one of the greatest art traditions that exist.”

I would say the exhibition does exactly that.

The Kongo societies lived in what are present day Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Republic of the Congo.   Beginning in the late 15th century there was much interaction between Kongo and European leaders and traders.  In 1491, the Kongo  sovereign had himself baptized João I, and adopted Catholicism as the state’s official religion, fortifying the ties between the regions.

Indeed, at the entrance to the exhibit you’ll find an intricately carved ivory oliphant. This ceremonial trumpet, from the 17th century was a diplomatic gift by King Afonso I of Kongo to Pope Leo X.

Luxury Cloth, 17th-18th century, Kongo

Luxury Cloth, 17th-18th century, Kongo

The textiles in this show are exquisite:  luxury cloths, mostly of woven raffia, with geometric patterns of diamonds and lozenges, as well as motifs such as the endless knot, over and under interlace design, and double knot.  While some of these designs were embroidered, in many cases the weavers employed a sophisticated weaving technique so that the design is raised and the fibres cut, thereby providing texture.  In addition to the cushion covers, take a look at the mpu, or crown hats worn by the chiefs.

Seated Female Supporting Figure with Clasped Hands, Master of Kasadi, 19th cent.

Seated Female Supporting Figure with Clasped Hands, Master of Kasadi, 19th cent.

There’s lots of female power in this exhibit as well, represented by ancestral shrine figures  along with mother and child statues. Those created by the Master of Kasadi often have motifs carved on the mother’s torsos.  There are also images of women incorporated on male leadership insignia, like the ivory staff finials of their staffs of office. Many of the women wear mpu, the crowns of the Kongo male chiefs.  Be sure to read the Met’s blog post of a conversation with musician Angelique Kijo.

Power Figure, Nkisi N'Kondi: Mangaaka, 19th cent.

Power Figure, Nkisi N’Kondi: Mangaaka, 19th cent.

The last and largest part of the exhibit consists of  the power figures or Mangaaka – 15 fierce, mesmerizing male wooden sculptures, created by master carvers – sacred objects in whose eyes and abdominal cavities medicines were secreted.  Carved in response to colonial incursions and the ensuing social upheavals in the 19th century, these  warriors and judges were taken into battle, visited the sick, and settled family conflicts.  The nails and blades hammered into their skin represent a prayer, decision or agreement that was made with the Magaaka.  These symbols of law and order in the Kongo communities were almost completely destroyed by  the European overlords who were decimating their lands – only 20 of them exist today.

There are many other things that caught my eye, such as the  ceremonial drums and bells, as well as the 19th century Kumbe bed panel of 6 seated figures and a dog, which made me think of the famous photograph “Lunch atop a Skyscraper.” 

After this exhibit, you should make your way to the companion show, “Jo Ratcliffe’s Photographs of Angola and South Africa.”    These photos taken between 2007 and 2013 depict the aftermath of the the Angolan CivIl war (1975-2002) and its relation to the Border War (1966-89) fought by South Africans in present day Namibia and Angola.  There are very few people in these pictures, and the use of black and white photography captures the bleakness of the abandoned buildings and landscapes which are often littered with land mines.  These photographs raise important questions about war, occupation, and abandonment.

On the other side of the mezzanine is an exhibit of “Photographic Portraits of West Africa”,  starting in1880 and going through the 1970’s.   Whether group portraits of the local elites or images of individuals, whether taken by professionals or amateurs, all these photos possess a certain formality:  no matter if they’re standing or seated, the subjects face the camera with a very serious expression.  It’s only when we get to photos taken in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s that we see sitters who are more relaxed, even smiling.  Photographers such as Malick Sibidé, Seydoud Keïta and Oumar Ka alternated between using plain backgrounds to make their sitter the central focus, and using backdrops with strong prints and patterns (especially vertical lines), which often provided an interesting contrast with their sitters’ clothing.  Closing the show are four larger scale photos: two of braided hair by JD Okhai Ojeikere, and  two self portraits by Samuel Fosso. 

I recommend seeing these shows before they close on January 3rd.

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