New Orleans prides herself on the fusion of cultures that combined to build the city we now know. One of the most commonly cited example of those evolutions is jazz’s origins in Congo Square. The New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA)’s new installation, Kongo: across the Waters aims to illustrate how the art of a different Kongo evolved through other influences and eventually came to influence the fabric of the American South.
First a note on spelling. Kongo (with a K) refers to an independent African kingdom that existed from 1390 until 1891 encompassing parts of today’s Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon. The Republic Congo (with a C) is a country sharing some of the same geography, but not a direct evolution of the Kongo.
In the traditional style of the Kongo, visitor’s to NOMA exhibition are greeted by a long horn. Art aficionados are then dispatched on a journey through time spread out over five different sections. The show begins with early artifacts and the proceeds to show the effects of Christianity, the end of the slave-trade, increased commerce with Europe, and ultimately African people’s customs transplanted in America.
Along the way, we are shown several pieces that appear to be created in the Kongo. However, a quick look at the small print on the cards and one learns that many of these works are actually created in America. Conversely, we see items with typical western motifs such as gin bottles and bowler hats, but then learn that they were sculpted in Africa. The crossover is visible to the naked eye.
The opening elements of the show are heavy on the fusion of African future with the works of Portuguese missionaries. Visitors see bronze crucifixes and artifacts carried by holy men as they spread Christianity. Religious medals literally fuse elements of European coinage with historic aesthetics of the region.
As the show progresses, patrons see the effects of wealth on the Kongo. Elaborately carved canes and historic photos attest to the power of chiefs. European style urns begin to appear. A maltese cross is carved from ivory and adorned with tribal symbols.
Then we are introduced to nkisi. They are vessels, commonly figurines believed to house spirits by the people of the Kongo. Healers and diviners known banging made the noises and tended to them. Each one is careful adorned with objects ranging from a bird’s claw to pieces of rope that were thought to add special powers. Sometimes, nails were required to awake the spirit and the visual result can be shocking to the uninitiated.
Like the finale of a fireworks display, the contemporary works in the last galleries are stunning departures in size and vivid colors. José Bedia’s 2000 painting Piango Piango Llega Lejos (Step by Step You Can Go Far). A massive circular painting evoking a neon primitivism, the work leaps into the future both in concept and content providing a fitting close to the show.
A video installation featuring Freddi Williams Evans and Luther Gray explores New Orleans Congo Square in the penultimate gallery. The inclusion of the piece is not a product of the show’s current 504 area code.
Rather, Kongo: across the Waters is a traveling exhibition resulting in no small part from renovations that have temporarily shuttered the Kingdom of Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa.
The installation was curated by Susan Cooksey, Robin Poynor, and Hein Vanhee. Yet, in NOLA, we have a tendency to make things our own and this show was a lob. NOMA’s Curator of African Art William Fagaly had a large role in the installation. Subsequently, the works were arranged a little different here than elsewhere with a stronger emphasis on a final synthesis in the American South.