Introducing Kongo across the Waters
The traveling art exhibit, which explores the legacy of West Central Africa, will be housed at the University of Florida for the next five months
BY PENNY DICKERSON SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
On Oct. 22, the University of Florida’s Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art and the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) in Tervuren, Belgium opened a groundbreaking exhibit in Gainesville. “Kongo across the Waters’’ is comprised of 162 selections ranging from sculptures, drawings, engravings, baskets, and contemporary mixed-media which “reveal new cultural connections across multiple centuries and continents.” Admission is free.
An accompanying same-titled book accompanies the exhibit authored by three of the leading inspirations: Susan Cooksey, Harn Museum’s curator of African Art; Dr. Robin Poynor, professor of Art History (University of Florida); and Hein Vanhee, curator of Belgium’s RMCA.
(Left) The “Memory Jar’’ is made of hand-built clay with encrusted shards and found objects. (Center) The Ndunga mask is from the Woyo, early 20th-century wood. (Right) The anthropormorphic power figure, Nkisi Nkondi, is of shell, vegetal fiber, metal, pigment and glass.
The Florida connection Most Floridians are abundantly aware of the peninsula’s namesake founder: Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon who proclaimed his discovery La Florida 500 years ago in April 1513.
The aforementioned curators and scholar assert that “his crew comprised two free Africans who had adopted the Spanish names of Juan Garrido and Juan Gonzalez Ponce de Leon.” The latter alludes, “with the first Europeans came also the first Africans to the North American continent.”
They are believed to have Kongo origins and this historical corrective is among many revelations that Kongo across the Waters seeks to present.
Through this exhibit, broad audiences can experience a visual manifestation that magnifies artistic and cultural African heritage contributions and how descendents preserved it.
Kongo vs. Congo The Congo River has earned geographic familiarity that rivals Egypt’s Nile; however, Kongo specifically refers to “a vast kingdom mostly south of the Congo in West Central Africa.” The kingdom was established by the Bakongo people prior to 1483 and early encounters with Portuguese sailors.
According to Vanhee, curator of RMCA, “One of the reasons to focus on the Kongos is the Belgium museum has all these bodies of (art) work, and a growing body of scholarly literature exists that puts emphasis on the Kongo contributions. Kongo with a “K” refers to historical people speaking the language Kikongo (in a specific region) now north of Angola…not the current modern states.”
In addition to the Portuguese being impressed with the Kingdom’s “political organization,” people from Kongolese were excellent self-taught artisans and intellectual traders who both presented and exchanged exquisite handmade gifts ranging from carved ivory tusks to finely woven raffia textiles.
“At its height, the Kongo kingdom occupied a pivotal position – geographically, geopolitically, and culturally – in the continent’s early interactions with Western colonial powers, creating a legacy that can still be felt today in the Diaspora communities of the American Southeast,” said Cooksey. “We’re especially pleased to include in this exhibition several artifacts from the Kongo Diaspora that have rarely been seen in a museum setting.”
Viva Florida influence Kongo across the Waters serves as an apt complement to the “Viva Florida 500 years of European presence in 2013” commemoration, but it is crucial to emphasize – “the project’s focus is on the historical and cultural connections between the United States and Kongo.”
The exhibit embodies five separate sections, each offering thematic tributes to the Kongo kingdom. Section I begins with 1598 Congo maps and the recognition of Kongolese elite’s Christianity conversion following teachings by European priests. An array of Crucifix symbols carved from wood, copper alloy, brass, ivory, and metal are on display along St. Anthony images and staff finials.
Crossing the Water The exhibit makes no attempt to mute the voluminous occurrence of Trans-Atlantic slave trade and its role in North America’s economic growth. Over one-third of enslaved Africans came from Central Africa, which included Kongo peoples. Section II of the exhibit explores how culture traveled to America and formed communities as proven by various archaeological excavations.
A “Replica St. Christopher medal” made of silver alloy from Fort Mose, St. Augustine and “Conjurer’s cache” from the Charles Carroll house excavation in Annapolis, Md. – believed to be the hidings of an enslaved woman – are evidentiary proof is that culture successfully crossed the waters and slaves longed to preserve cultural roots.
Kongo in the 19th century Section’s III and IV of the exhibit celebrate the fusion of African traditions including folk art, music, ritual, trade, and funerary, all of which remain an abundant part of African-American life today.
“Bells with three clappers, drums, whistles, and horns” exemplify how adoration for music evolved from early melodic instruments. The laying of textiles on graves to honor the dead along with rites and voudou (voodoo) ritual is also exposed. The “Ndunga mask “ and commemorative “Memory Jar,” further advance how the Harn’s exhibit upholds historical relevance previously overlooked by scholars, but currently gains respect by both academics and emerging artists.
Contemporary artists and interactive media Five contemporary artists from diverse cultural backgrounds offer works to Kongo across the Waters that “represent ways in which Kongo influence is manifested in contemporary art.” They are: Renee Stout (African-American), Steve Bandoma (Congolese), José Bedia (Cuban, American resident), Radcliffe Bailey (African-American), and Edouard Duval-Carrié (Haitian).
Stunning is Bailey’s “Returnal,” which is a framed medicine cabinet-collage tracing his own roots from DNA sequence to slave ships and Marcus Garvey. An interactive music platform will allow guests to listen to authentic Kongo music via sound sticks and earphones and a commissioned video will demonstrate the roots of hambone, juba, jazz, and gospel.
Closing the final section is a photographic mural depicting 21st-century Kongo lifestyles including step shows and the influence of “iconography to create new art.”
According to University of Florida Professor Dr. Robin Poyner, “an underlying foundation of African-American culture is Kongo culture.”
For more information on the traveling exhibition, visit kongoacrossthewaters.net.