Kongo Treasures Link New Orleans To Ancestors ‘Across The Waters’

by Chris Waddington, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

This article originally appeared here

Africa dwells in New Orleans. You can taste it in our gumbo, dance to it during second-lines, and hear it when the city’s drummers gather at Congo Square. Starting Friday (Feb. 27), you also can explore those African connections in a nationally touring exhibit at New Orleans Museum of Art.

“Kongo Across the Waters” gathers about 160 objects — masks, ceremonial sculptures, musical instruments and baskets — from Central Africa, and displays them with works created in North America by the descendants of Kongolese who were sold into slavery.

It’s a show that drives home the visionary power and aesthetic refinement of Kongolese art, while making it plain that ancestral styles and cultural meanings survived the Middle Passage — even though slave owners sought to suppress such inheritances.

The exhibit includes many side-by-side comparisons.

A basket gathered in 19th century Angola, for example, looks just like a modern basket from the Sea Islands of Georgia. A walking stick, carved for a 19th century African king, includes the image of a man in a bowler hat — a figure of prestige and power that also appears in a cane carved in the American South.

Showing such work in New Orleans is especially appropriate, said NOMA curator William Fagaly who supervised the local installation.

“New Orleans is the most African city in the United States. If you could remove everything African from the city, the only thing you’d have left is a hot and humid Midwestern town,” he said.

Over the past half-century, Fagaly has steadily built NOMA’s African holdings, while tracking the kind of cultural survivals that are so carefully documented in “Kongo Across the Waters.”

“This kind of show looks different when you see it through the eyes of a New Orleanian,” Fagaly said. He pointed to one of the current exhibit’s video installations in which Congo Square scholar Freddi Williams Evans and drummer Luther Gray discuss the meaning of that historic site on the edge of the French Quarter.

Over the years Fagaly has always invited African-American artists to tour NOMA’s African shows with him — not just as a courtesy, but also to learn from them.

“Years ago, when I looked at Yoruba beading with Tootie Montana and his Mardi Gras Indian gang, it was a thrilling moment for all of us, partly to see how many techniques they shared, but also to see importance of beading and why it’s embedded in their culture and thinking.”

“Kongo Across the Waters” includes plenty of delights, both aesthetic and historical.

“If you love beautiful objects, this show delivers one amazing piece after another,” Fagaly said.

For music fans, the exhibit features a selection of ceremonial horns, drums, and stringed instruments — and listening stations that let visitors hear them in action.

For those with an interest in spiritual matters, the exhibit includes both animist power figures and a century-spanning array of metal crucifixes. (Kongo royalty converted to Catholicism shortly after the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century).

For fans of contemporary art, the exhibit extends its argument to the present, by showcasing the work of living artists — Radcliffe Bailey, Renee Stout, Jose Bedia and others — who explore African roots in deliberate fashion.

Co-organized by The Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium, the exhibit draws heavily on the world-renowned holdings of the Belgian institution, which is undergoing a renovation.

“As a curator, I’m envious of the Belgian collection. It’s a pleasure to be able to share it with New Orleans,” Fagaly said. “But it’s a collection with a complicated history. The Belgian king was a collector on a grand scale. We don’t really know his motives. In effect, he stripped the region of its culture treasures, but he also enshrined these objects for the future.”

Kongo Across the Waters

What: A selection of 160 objects that explores the connections between the art and civilization of the African Kongo peoples with that of African American art and culture in the United States. It was jointly organized by The Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida and the Royal Museum for Central America in Tervuren, Belgium.
Where: New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park.
When: Feb. 27 – May 15. The museum is open Fridays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: $10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 children (7-17), children 6 and younger admitted free. University students with valid ID receive $8 admission. Wednesdays are free admission days for Louisiana residents. For more information about NOMA, call 504.658.4100 or visit NOMA.org.

Public Programs:
All of these programs take place at NOMA except for the reburial and Congo Square Celebration on April 18.

  • LECTURE Feb. 27, 6 p.m. with Hein Vanhee, Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren: “True stories from Leopold’s Congo: Collections, Representations, and History” and performance by Bamboula 2000.
  • LECTURE: March 13 | 6 pm with Susan Cooksey and Robin Poynor of the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida and co-curators of Kongo Across the Waters.
  • SYMPOSIUM: March 14, 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Connecting ‘Kongo Across the Waters’ to New Orleans: A Symposium. Selected speakers include Ryan Gray, James Mokhiber, Andrea Mosterman, Freddi Evans, Luther Gray, and a panel of UNO graduate students at NOMA.
  • LECTURE: April 10, 6 p.m. with Radcliffe Bailey. TimesTBA.?
  • LECTURE: April 17, 6 p.m. with Grey Gundaker, William and Mary College: “Ancestors, Remembrance, and Moral Force: Flashes of Spirit in Burial and Residential Settings.”
  • REBURIAL AND CONGO SQUARE CELEBRATION: April 18 | St. Peter Street Cemetery: A Reburial Ceremony. At St. Augustine Catholic Church, St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery and Congo Square. Times TBA.
  • LECTURE: May 15, 6 p.m. with Matthew Stanard, Berry College: “Belgians Across the Kongo: Collecting, Curators, and Colonialism at the Tervuren Museum” and Sarah Van Beurden of Ohio State University.
  • LECTURE: May 22 | 6 pm with John Thornton of Boston University: “Kongo and the Formation of Afro-Christian Religions in the New World.”