princeton art lower kongo staffPHOTO: Lower Kongo Staff

Kongo masterpieces never before seen in the US will be on view at Princeton University Art Museum Oct. 25, 2014, through Jan. 25, 2015

PRINCETON, N. J.— Kongo across the Waters explores the vibrant culture of Kongo peoples from West Central Africa and the transmission and legacy of that culture in the Americas. The exhibition—the largest of African art ever presented in Princeton—includes more than 100 masterpieces of Kongo and African American art (including numerous pieces never before exhibited in the U.S.) that visually narrate an exchange of ideas, artistic practices and religious beliefs that span 500 years and encompass three continents.

       The exhibition, which includes loans from the unparalleled collection of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum from Oct. 25, 2014 to Jan. 25, 2015. Kongo across the Waters is the most important project to address slave trade and colonialism through the lens of the artistic traditions of Africa and the African diaspora ever presented at Princeton, and it charts new territory in understanding works of African art of exceptional historical and aesthetic interest.

       “Kongo across the Waters represents a monumental step toward recognizing the importance of Kongo art and aesthetics and their legacy across cultures and continents,” said Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward. “We are particularly pleased to partner with the Samuel P. Harn Museum and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren on this ambitious project that has the potential to change the way we think about the art of central Africa.”

       In 1483, Portuguese explorers first arrived in the Kingdom of Kongo, where they discovered a politically and artistically sophisticated society located in present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of Congo and Angola. The Kongolese king converted to Christianity, leading to the incorporation of Christian imagery and iconography into Kongo’s own religious and artistic traditions. A trade in objects and ideas continued throughout the sixteenth century.

       However, millions of enslaved Kongolese were soon transported to the Americas as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Nearly one quarter of first-generation African slaves in the United States were from the Kongo region, forming the largest single group of enslaved Africans. In radically changed and extremely difficult environments, they maintained, blended and reinvented their spiritual, artistic and domestic practices, passing them on to their descendants. Kongolese slaves carried little more than memories of their rich Kongo culture, yet their presence left a distinctive and enduring mark on the development of African American arts.

       Kongo across the Waters is organized into sections defined by geography and time. The first section explores—through swords, crucifixes and figures of saints—religious encounters between Kongo and Europe. Carved wooden staffs, flywhisks and ivory scepters display the arts of political authority. A section devoted to minkisi (containers for ancestral spirits and empowering medicines) presents a stunning array of the sculptures that facilitated Kongo communication with spirits. “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Kongo Culture” features rare archaeological evidence of Kongo practices that journeyed across the Atlantic. The next section surveys the nineteenth century, an age of colonialism but also of artistic fluorescence, during which imported materials fused with Kongo iconography. In “Kongo in African American Cultures,” everyday and ritual objects such as ceramic face vessels, canes carved after the Civil War and contemporary sweetgrass baskets highlight the dynamic evolution and resilience of Kongo traditions in America.

       Contemporary artists around the world continue to be inspired by the art of the Kongo, and their diverse work is featured in the exhibition’s final section, which includes paintings by Edouard Duval-Carrié (Haiti and U.S.) and José Bedia (Cuba), sculptures by Renée Stout (U.S.), mixed-media works by Radcliffe Bailey (U.S.) and a collage by Steve Bandoma (Democratic Republic of the Congo).

       A video produced for the exhibition reveals the influence of Kongolese music on the development of jazz. Maps, engravings and photographs provide additional contextual information.

       The accompanying 448-page richly-illustrated catalogue, with entries by leading scholars in archaeology, history, religion and African and African American art history, further extends the exhibition experience. Edited by Susan Cooksey, curator of African art at the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, Robin Poynor of the University of Florida’s School of Art and Art History and Hein Vanhee, a curator at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, the publication is divided into three sections: Kongo in Africa, Kongo in the Americas and Kongo in Contemporary Art.

       Kongo across the Waters is a joint project organized by the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, and the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, and is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. At Princeton, supplementary interpretive content has been developed by the Princeton University Art Museum. The exhibition at Princeton has been made possible by generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts; the Frances E. and Elias Wolf, Class of 1920, Fund; Susan and John Diekman, Class of 1965; the David A. Gardner ‘69 Magic Project; the Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University; and an anonymous fund. Additional funds have been provided by the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a Partner Agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; and by the Center for African American Studies, the Program in African Studies, the Office of Religious Life, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Department of English, Princeton University. Further support has been provided by the Partners and Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum.