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A Look Inside “Kongo: Power & Majesty” with Curator Alisa LaGamma

by Rachel Rickert, NYSS Recruitment Coordinator

Dean Graham Nickson of the New York Studio School and his painting students were invited to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current Exhibition “Kongo: Power & Majesty” for a tour by Curator Alisa LaGamma, Curator in Charge of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Thoroughly and with great care, LaGamma led the students through the exhibition of art produced in Africa’s Kongo Civilization, between the 15th and 19th century. The work shows the responses of regional artists to major historical developments, bringing them in contact with the western world.
LaGamma explained the introduction to the exhibition, where west and east met, starting with a monument from the Portuguese explorer Diago Cão’s ship. The lime stone pillar marked with the sign of the Portuguese Crown was planted at the mouth of the Congo River and marks the start of trade between the Kongo and Europe. Across from the pillar is a white elephant tusk carved in the form of a trumpet, with bands of intricate abstract patterning spiraling up the form. The spiral is not just decorative, but as LaGama explains, in western African Religion stands as a visual metaphor for the trajectory the soul takes when it leaves the body. This piece was commissioned by a Kongo King and presented as a gift to Pope Leon X, who was a Medici Pope, and Rafael’s great patron. This piece is the first work by an African Artist to end up in a European collection.

Kongo Oliphant with reflection of Standard of Saint Augustine (Portuguese Pillar) at entrance to the exhibition

As the group of students moved from room to room, LaGamma illuminated the historical backdrop that led to the creation, use, and trade of the objects and sculptures. The exhibition combines rare artifacts, gathered together for the first time, and is also the first time curators sought to identify individual artists’ hands. Through delicate loom made Raffia-palm fiber textiles and elaborate carved ivory, LaGamma highlighted the “lavish, inventive geometric covering of surfaces” that is a part of the visual language of Kongo Artistry from antiquity to the 19th century .

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Also included in the exhibition are artifacts commissioned by Kongo leaders, insignias of Power. Staffs with beautiful miniature sculptural elements at the top, often in ivory, are displayed next to textile crowns and capes. The exhibit is structured as a layered experience, where the beautiful refinements of the delicate staff toppers are juxtaposed with the aggressive larger power figures. LaGamma described the underlying beauty of the small figures as “undeniable,” while the power figures are “more complicated to understand aesthetically.”

Carved Kongo Staff Finial

Soon after Cão went to Africa, Christopher Columbus discovered the new world, which led to the rush to develop new empires and the need to for labor. Despite the promising beginning of communication between West Africa and the East, soon people were displaced and brought to the Americas. The local leaders’ participation in slavery spiraled out of control and became a huge destabilizing force in this region in the 17th century.
Masks used for healing and intervention in times of social crisis are painted with the colors of Kongo Art. LaGamma explained the Kongo Color palette to the Studio School students: White, the absence of color, the color of bones, representing ancestors; Red, the color of transformation and vitality; and Black, the color of the living. Next to the masks are elaborate figurative vessels for medicine, and sculptures for burial sites.

Curator Alisa La Gamma

The exhibition concludes with two ideas of Kongo power and their visual representations. In the 19th century, the Kongo culture began addressing the depleted population and the urgency to rebuild and fortify with an incredible output of artists creating female figures. Women needed to take on leadership roles to save communities, and these sculptures emphasize the restorative influence of women and the ideal of female power supporting an entire society.

Female Power Figures

In these small female power sculptors, LaGamma has identified two hands. The “Master of the Boma-Vonde Region,” whose work is characterized with a softness and tender intimacy, and the “Master of Kasadi,” whose style is more experimental, and plays with the interpretation of the female figure and secondary child or male figure.
Adjacent to the Kongo Female Power is the Nkisi N’Kondi: Mangaaka, instruments of Law and Order, coming out of the mid-19th century pressures. The imposing male figures represent an abstract force of Law & Order, imposing vessels. They are collaborations between the artists who sculpt the figures, the priests who add the sacred materials to the containers on their stomachs, and the people in the landscape of conflict whose leaders add the metal protruding nails, that symbolized an agreement or the end of a dispute. LaGamma has gathered 15, most of the remaining Mangaaka Sculptures, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for this powerful exhibition. By bringing all these sculptures together for the first time, LaGamma and her team were able to debunk the theory that they were created by a single artist, pointing out how they are actually the hands of different sculptors.

Power Figure (Nkisi N’Kondi: Mangaaka)

The trip to the Metropolitan Museum with curator Alisa LaGamma allowed the Students of the Studio School an intimate insight into the “Kongo: Power & Majesty” Exhibition that was truly an unforgettable experience. This exhibition of rarely seen together artistic and historical treasures is on view through January 3rd, 2016.

Power Figure (Nkisi N’Kondi: Mangaaka)


Snapshots From NYSS

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