Sunday was a day off for everyone, even the African slaves in antebellum New Orleans, which is yet another part of its history that makes it a little more eccentric than others.
Most slaves weren’t required to spend Sundays in their owners’ homes. They were allowed to go out and mingle among other slaves.
The gathering point was Congo Square.
It’s known as the 32-acre Louis Armstrong Park these days, located in Treme, just across Rampart Street from the French Quarter. This was where slaves socialized, danced and sang.
Where they came together to keep their traditions alive.
The New Orleans Museum of Art is celebrating the continent that created those traditions in its exhibit Ancestors of Congo Square: African Art in the New Orleans Museum of Art.
The exhibit runs through July 17, and occupies the Ella West Freeman galleries, whose entry is in the back of the museum’s great hall. It’s here where the traditions are explored and explained, where they’re illustrated by wooden and terra cotta sculptures and ceremonial African masks.
The amazing part is that this is only a sampling of the museum’s African art collection. The New Orleans Museum of Art last fall released a 376-page book by Scala Publishers of London documenting this collection.
But clearly, not all pieces could fit into this exhibit.
“So, we chose some pieces to represent the collection,” William Fagaly said. “Our collection is continuous, so we’re always adding pieces to it. We have 100 pieces in this exhibit. These are the highlights.”
Fagaly is the museum’s Francoise Billion Richardson Curator of African Art, a position he’s held for more than 40 years.
“We were required to have an exhibition with the publishing of this book,” Fagaly continued.
The timing was perfect, because 2011 is the museum’s centennial year. The museum is celebrating by highlighting segments of its vast and diverse permanent collection.
Now the African ancestors who passed down their traditions to the slaves who once socialized in Congo Square are getting their due. In this round-about way, so are the descendants who kept - and are keeping - these traditions alive.
The exhibit is divided into five sections: Western Sudan, Guinea Coast, Ghana, Equatorial Forest and Southern Savannah. Displays within those sections include a 38-second loop of a CT scan revealing the inside contents of a terra cotta sculpture created between the 11th and 17th centuries; short video loops of tribal dances in Africa featuring ceremonial masks similar to the ones on view and sculptures representing beliefs and traditions.
“African art is not like western art,” Fagaly said. “African art has a function - they’re utilitarian objects.”
Some of the pieces are designed to aid everyday tasks; others are used in ceremonies.
The exhibit literally is a journey that covers the African continent, exploring how this artwork was used by the people living in each area. Many of the traditions are similar, some are different.
Greeting visitors to the Western Sudan segment are seven exterior and one interior palace house posts. Viewers will liken these pieces to totem poles, each featuring a variety of animals carved in wood.
The poles also serve as the entrance to the exhibit, leading into a world where wooden masks represent ancestor or nature spirits in the Equatorial Forest, the past is immortalized in an intricately carved merry-go-round sculpture atop a memorial staff in Ghana and a wooden throne awaits its chief in the Southern Savannah.
Each segment also is broken down according to the tribes that inhabit the areas with labels discussing how their traditions both differ and intertwine.
“The exhibit is primarily sculpture, with most being wooden, though some pieces are made of metals,” Fagaly said.
Sculptures representing men and women are similar throughout all the African regions, most times naked and differentiated by exaggeration of sexual features.
Make no mistake - this isn’t an African safari. It’s a journey through cultures and beliefs, through mind and spirit.
Sculptures and masks are much like the palace house posts at the exhibit’s beginning, serving as an entryway into something deeper, more spiritual.
Tradition is alive in these galleries, just as it was in the days when slaves gathered in Congo Square.
And the New Orleans Museum of Art is celebrating it.