Kongo: Power and Majesty, a new exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art hopes to reshape and redefine one understanding of the the West’s relationship to Africa today. It is the MET’s Alissa LaGamma, the Ceil and Michael E. Pultizer Curator in Charge of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, herself born in the DR Congo, who envisioned this opportunity and brought to life the exhibition which opened on September 18, 2015.
The exhibit focuses on 145 works of art from Congolese artists dating from the 15th to the early 20th century. These Kongo masterpieces which preceded colonialism by 400 years, shows the sophistication and ingenuity of ancient Kongo long before Europeans arrived there. The exhibition explores the power symbols displayed through the works and how they reflect historical relationships developed over time including the significance of the adoption of Christianity by Kongo King Nzinga a Nkuwu in 1491 and the creation of idols or minikisi in response to European colonialist incursions.
The exhibition includes the massive Mangaaka sculpture, a power figure depicting a formidable Kongo leader, representing law, order and other unseen forces, acquired by the MET in 2008 and serves as the inspiration for this exhibition, to the exquisite artifacts and carvings which have been collected by royalty and elites over centuries. Commenting on the exhibition, art historian Jack Flam notes in the Wall Street Journal that “Great art, as we know, embodies the values of the society that produced it. One of the triumphs of this exhibition is how well it relates various aspects of Kongo culture to the art it produced, while creating in turn a rich sense of the important role art played in different aspects of Kongo society.”
The exhibition displays the works of artists from what today includes the northern Republic of Congo, Angola and southern DR Congo and includes the works of Master sculptors Kasadi, Makaya Vista and Boma Vonde. It tells an important historical story about the Congo from the time of the arrival of the Portuguese says Curator LaGamma on radio show CongoLive. A history and tradition, she adds that was largely lost and preserved almost by accident. Congolese journalist/filmmaker Sarah Kazadi who visited the exhibition on its opening night described the experience as “bittersweet” recognizing that the Congolese have indeed lost much.
The Kongo: Power and Majesty exhibition will be on display in the MET’s Special Exhibition Gallery through January 3, 2016. The MET has also organized a special tour of the exhibit for Friends of the Congo supporters on the opening day of Congo Week, Sunday, October 18, 2015 to be followed by a panel discussion.