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Review: Kongo Across the Waters

The New Orleans Museum of Art’s new exhibit, featuring West African and African-American artworks



The Kongo kingdom ruled a swath of central Africa for 500 years. The Kongo king and his nobles surrounded themselves with finely wrought artistic objects, and when Portuguese explorers arrived in 1483, relations based on trade were established. The Kongo exported commodities, crafts and slaves (captured tribal rivals) and imported Portuguese crafts and culture, including Roman Catholic icons. In the 18th century, Many Kongo slaves were brought to New Orleans, where they gathered on Sundays in Congo Square to celebrate their traditions — cultural legacies that eventually became crucial contributors to Creole cuisine, jazz and rhythm and blues. Their visual heritage is explored in this New Orleans Museum of Art expo in the form of Kongo and African-American art ranging from antique to modern and contemporary, all remarkably imaginative.

  Traditional African ritual masks and sculptural fetishes often suggest the European modernist styles they influenced. Some fine examples include a Nkisi Nkondi power figure — a carved wooden warrior who guards against evil influences. His fierce gaze and bodily adornments recall expressionism and assemblage sculpture. A ndunga mask (pictured), worn by priests to invoke the protective power of departed ancestors, reflects the Kongo flair for highly stylized, yet eerily lifelike, carving that evokes surrealism's dreamlike visionary psychology.

  Those tendencies are reincarnated in contemporary works by Renee Stout, Radcliffe Bailey, Haitian-American Edouard Duval-Carrie, Cuban-American Jose Bedia and Congolese artist Steve Bandoma. Washington D.C.-based Stout, inspired by Marie Laveau, makes sculptural assemblages based on her updated "nkisi" — psychically charged objects comprising sculptures like her Self Portrait. Nkisi also figure strongly in paintings by Bedia, Bandoma and Bailey, whose mixed-media work is on display in a solo expo at the Contemporary Arts Center. But Duval-Carrie's colorful, ghostly paintings are inspired by Haitian history, Kongo ancestors and voodoo spirits. Carnivalesque and Felliniesque, their aesthetic parallels to local Mardi Gras marching groups like the Society of St. Anne and secretive skull and bones gangs, suggesting as yet unexplored connections between voodoo, surrealism and the pervasive, if subliminal, influence of Kongo culture on Louisiana life.

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