While in New York City at the beginning of December, I made sure to see the exhibition “Kongo: Power and Majesty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The exhibit featured more than 100 objects from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, in the Central African regions that are now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, and Angola.
When the Portuguese sailors arrived on the coast of Central Africa in 1482 to scout for trade opportunities, the kingdom of the Kongo was at the height of power. Three million people (I have no idea how historians calculated this) were ruled by a king and his network of advisers, provincial governors, and village chiefs.
Never willing to let anything alone, Catholic missionaries arrived soon afterwards to convert everyone beginning with the king. Eventually local artists began producing crucifixes, rosaries….and Christian works found their way into tribal arts. Christianity was more or less formally adopted there in 1491.
During the nineteenth century, an exceptional number of minkisi were made. These are (according to the Met’s website) a container of spiritual forces made by a sculptor and a ritual specialist to investigate (the cause of) and cure (literally and symbolically) a chronic problem or physical ailment. In this case, Western nations haphazardly and ruthlessly carving up and devouring Africa.
Mangaaka, the undisputed “king and master” , was the personification of an abstract force charged with the arbitration of trade disputes. According to the Met’s website “As the supreme adjudicator of conflicts and protector of communities across the Chiloango River region, it (Mangaaka) was the most ambitious and monumental sculptural form developed as a high point in Kongo expression. ”
The exhibition features fifteen of the twenty surviving Mangaaka (power figures) in the world – brought together for the first time from collections spanning the globe. Each was believed to be created by a different carver of the Yombe peoples, each a wooden male figure standing about four feet high with big white eyes, bits of iron, nails, with sharp teeth and a pouch. They are sad and aggressive, beautiful and tragic – artistic evidence of how the west nearly destroyed (the effort is still in process) Africa and eliminate tribal societies.
One of my favorite parts of the exhibition – B&W postcards by Belgians including two of ancestral shrines for chiefs in front of thatched open-front structures along the Chiloango River (fyi, not connected to the Congo River).
And I love walking through the African galleries at the museum. Such an extraordinary collection of masks!! The mask pictured above marks the transition for boys into adult life. For up to a year, boys are separated from the village and made to undergo a series of ordeals including circumcision – designed to measure their strength and courage. The year culminates in the symbolic death as children and rebirth as men. **This practice was common in the DRC, Kenya…. and I brought home (legally!!) a beautiful circumcision mask made by a tribe I spent time with in the center of the DRC.
Afterward wandering the African galleries, I ventured on to Roman wall paintings and finally the arms and armor….before having a wonderful lunch in the museum’s cafeteria. Such a treat!!!