Long before there was a Congo Square — indeed, long before there was even a New Orleans — there was a Kingdom of Kongo.
Covering an expanse of Central Africa corresponding to the modern day countries of Gabon in the north to Angola in the south, with the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) near its geographical center, the Kingdom of Kongo was a vibrant culture of trade and artistic production from the late 14th century through the early 1900s — a period that coincided with the long centuries during which untold tens of thousands of its subjects were forcibly brought to the New World as slaves.
This spring, the complex and overlapping strains of cultural and artistic production that took place over that 500-year period and beyond are explored in “Kongo across the Waters,” an expansive exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
It might sound from its title and subject matter that “Kongo” was conceived and created in New Orleans. But the exhibition was organized by the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville and comes to the Crescent City after previous iterations in Atlanta and New Jersey.
It’s fitting, however, the New Orleans is the final stop on the “Kongo” nationwide tour. After all, few places in the United States demonstrate so clearly the process of cultural continuity that defines the central premise of the exhibition.
Roughly chronologically arranged, “Kongo across the Waters” begins with objects dating from early 16th century, not long after the emperor of the Kongo kingdom converted to Christianity following the arrival of Portuguese traders and missionaries in 1483. (For some visitors, learning that a Christian kingdom already existed in Central Africa in the decades following Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World will be the first of several surprises in store in this consistently engaging exhibition.)
Some of the more intriguing moments in this section include examples of devotional and liturgical objects combining Christian iconography with traditional Kongolese forms, materials and motifs.
A subsequent section focuses on art produced in the Kongo during the following centuries with an emphasis on nkisi figures: anthropomorphic sculptural assemblages made from a variety of materials endowed with symbolic and magical properties. One large example from Boma in the Lower Congo, covered in bits of fabric and iron and complete with startlingly evocative glass eyes, is among the most powerful and intriguing pieces in the show.
While the chronological sequence of the show makes some sense from a curatorial perspective, it creates a few missed opportunities. This becomes apparent toward the beginning of the show, when the exhibition flows from objects from the 16th and 17th centuries to ones from the 19th and early 20th with barely a mention of the Middle Passage, or forced migration of slaves from Africa to the Americas, that came between.
The Middle Passage is eventually mentioned a few galleries later in the introduction to a gallery of objects created in the United States, including elaborately carved walking sticks and items excavated from a house in Annapolis, Maryland, where they had been buried by slaves in accordance with traditional Kongo ceremonial customs. But its earlier elision in the historical record of the exhibition feels awkward.
The section of African-American art in the exhibition also includes a series of “memory jars,” which in decoration and purpose powerfully reflect the tradition of the Kongolese nkisi figures earlier in the show. But separating them chronologically makes it more difficult to appreciate the extraordinary historical and creative continuity spanning the centuries and cultures.
Fortunately, “Kongo Across the Waters” is generously spaced throughout, so wandering back and forth between the galleries to compare works created in different places and time periods shouldn’t present a problem. And the concise wall texts are supplemented by plentiful maps as well as videos and sound recordings, making the exhibition more of a multimedia experience than you might expect.
“Kongo Across the Waters” closes with a selection of work from five contemporary artists demonstrating that the artistic continuities explored earlier in the show are still very much in evidence today. Highlights include paintings by Radcliffe Bailey and Edouard Duval-Carrié referencing the Middle Passage and modern-day takes on the nkisi tradition by Renée Stout and Steve Bandoma.
It’s a satisfying conclusion to the five-century tale of cultural cross-pollination that “Kongo across the Waters” tells so well.
John d’Addario writes about art. He can be reached at email@example.com.