Kongo across the Waters

A National Legacy with Special Hampton Connections

Mary Lou Hultgren

Desi Arnez and his La Conga Orchestra, 1946  Photo: Big Band LibraryIn the 1950s millions of Americans saw Desi Arnez beat the conga drum and chant Ba-ba-lou! during his night club act on “I Love Lucy.” That’s how deep the Kongolese legacy had seeped into American culture without most people knowing that it had. The people who could connect that pop cultural moment back to its Afro-Cuban origins included jazz aficionados who witnessed the Afro Cuban influence in late 1940s’ bebop through the collaborations of Dizzy Gillespie and his Cuban drummer, Chano Pozo, and Charlie Parker with Machito and his Afro-Cuban Orchestra. And some people affiliated with Hampton Institute (now University) knew about a rich Kongo legacy on these shores because Hampton has one of the greatest collections of Kuba artifacts ever assembled. 

Later we would learn that people from the Kongo state of Ndongo were the first Africans brought to North America in 1619.  They disembarked on land that is now immediately adjacent to Hampton University. Among these Ndongo was a couple who gave birth, right here in Hampton, to the first African American born in the British colonies.  

William H. Sheppard after his induction into the Royal Geographic Society, 1893. Photo: Arthur R. Ware273 years later, in 1892 Hampton Institute alumnus Sheppard William H. Sheppard was the first westerner to enter the Kuba kingdom.  He collected nearly 400 exceptional objects and artifacts from the royal Kuba family in the 1890s and early 1900s and donated them to Hampton Institute. 

The Sheppard collection is the basis of the book, Taste For The Beautiful: Zairian Art From The Hampton University Museum by Mary Lou Hultgren, 1993. (Zaire is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.) Mary Lou Hultgren was then curator of collections at the HU Museum and continues to advise on the collection. She was interested to learn about the Kongo across the Waters exhibition connecting that region of Africa and the Americas and submitted this preview of it to IRAAA.

Kongo across the Waters, Princeton University Art Museum, October 25, 2014 - January 25, 2015

Kongo artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Staff finial, 17th-18th century. Brass. Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, BelgiumKongo across the Waters, a path-breaking, traveling exhibition at Princeton University Art Museum, features art from Central West Africa that affords an unparalleled opportunity to explore the vibrant art of Kongo peoples and its profound legacy in the Americas.  The artistic splendors of the cultures flourishing in the Congo region dazzled Westerners from the Portuguese who first arrived in the Kingdom of Congo in 1483 to the African American missionary William H. Sheppard, who was the first westerner to enter the capital of the Kingdom of the Kuba more than 400 years later.

On view from October 25, 2014 to January 25, 2015, Kongo across the Waters is the largest exhibit of African art ever presented at Princeton and the first on this theme in North America.  More than 100 pieces will be on view including masterpieces of Kongo art on loan from the prestigious Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium,  as well as carefully selected masterpieces of African American art inspired by the art of the Kongo.  These objects combine Yombe artist, Mayombe, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nkisi, 19th century. Wood, shell, vegetal figer, metal, pigment, glass. Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgiumto visually narrate an exchange of ideas, artistic practices and religious beliefs that span 500 years and three continents.   Princeton University Art Museum director James Steward has succinctly noted that this is an “ambitious project that has the potential to change the way we think about art the art of central Africa” and “represents a monumental step toward recognizing the importance of Kongo art and aesthetics and their legacy across cultures and continents.”

When Portuguese explorers encountered the kingdom of Kongo in 1453, 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 16th century.

Yombe artist, Mayombe, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Wooden grave figure, early 20th century. Wood, pigment. Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, BelgiumHowever, 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 Sates 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. Enslaved Kongolese carried little more than memories of their rich American artist, Memory jar, 20th century. Clay with shards and found objects. High Museum of ArtKongo 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.   Maps, engravings and photographs accompany the important art objects to provide additional contextual information.  The first section explores—through swords, crucifixes and figures of saints—religious encounters between Kongo and Europe.  Carved wooden staffs, fly whisks 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 Congo Culture” features rare archaeological evidence of Kongo practices that journeyed across the Atlantic. The minkisi-like memory jar shown here bears the following inscription: "To the Emmett Cox Funeral Home. Presented by B.Y.M.B.'s of North Broad Baptist Church, Rome, Georgia."

Edouard Duval-Carrie, La Traversee, 1996. Oil on canvas in artist’s frame. Bass Museum, Gift of Sanford A. Rubenstein. © Edouard Duval-CarrieThe next section surveys the 19th 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.

The Contemporary Response

Contemporary artists around the world continue to be inspired by the art of the Kongo, their diverse work is featured in the exhibition’s final sections, which includes paintings by Edouard Duval-Carrie(Haiti and U.S.) and Jose Bedia (Cuba), sculptures by Renee Stout (U.S.), mixed-media works by Radcliffe Bailey (U.S.) and a collage by Steve Bandoma (Democratic Republic of the Congo). The Kongo reference in Radcliffe Bailey's Down By the River is included in the Blanton Museum's description of this painting in its collection: "Bailey has embellished the picture, surrounding it with distinctly African references.... The photo’s placement recalls Congolese Nkisi statues, votive sculptures carved out of wood whose presumed supernatural powers are indicated in their belly region."

Radcliffe Bailey, Down by the River, 1997. Blanton Museum © Radcliffe Bailey

Co-organized by the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgian, the exhibition is a major collaborative effort that furthers the respective missions of these two great museums to work with international partners in developing relevant and engaging exhibitions that reach out to new audiences.  Established in 1897-98 by King Leopold II of Belgium, the Tervuren Museum is considered one of the world’s most impressive museums devoted to Steve Bandoma, Acculturation. Watercolor, ink and paper collage. Samuel P Harn Museum of Art © Steve BandomaAfrica and holds the world’s greatest collection of Central African art.  The Harn Museum, opened in 1990, is one of the largest university-affiliated art museums in the United States.

Numerous pieces selected from this collection for inclusion in Kongo across the Waters have never before been exhibited in the United States.  

An impressive 448-page richly-illustrated catalogue, with entries by leading scholars in archaeology, history, religion and African and African American history, further extends the exhibition experience.  Edited by Susan Cooksey, curator of African art at 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, the publication is divided into three sections:  Kongo in Africa, Kongo in the Americas and Kongo in Contemporary Art.

Kuba artist, raffia cut-pile cloth. Collection of Hampton University MuseumThe Kuba Collection at Hampton

Kuba artist, Mukenga mask. Collection of Hampton University MuseumThis extraordinary, special exhibit at Princeton University complements an important permanent exhibit highlighting art from the Congo, The Art of Africa: Power, Beauty, Community, at Hampton University Museum. The Museum houses one of the world’s oldest collections of the art of the Kuba peoples, another of the great kingdoms of the Congo region.  Missionary, human rights activist, explorer, art collector and Hampton alumnus, William H. Sheppard, served in the Kuba area of the Kasai region from 1890 to 1910.  The documentation he made during his initial visit to the Kuba capital in 1892 provides benchmark descriptions of a culture on the brink of the colonial era.  Many of the early high quality works Sheppard collected in the Congo form the nucleus of Hampton’s permanent African art exhibit and provide a visual link to the political and social complexity of the Kuba kingdom and central Africa’s past. 

Kuba artist, 17th century knife. Collection of Hampton University MuseumThe Mukenga mask shown here signifies strength and its use may have had a relation to maintaining law and order. The collector William H. Sheppard explained: 

The long top (of the mask) represents an elephant trunk, i.e., strength. The palm (fringe) also signifies strength. Therefore the mass of it (is) around the neck. Leopard (skin on the front of the mask) also means strength. Shamba Balongongo (an early Kuba ruler) is said to have founded a secret association whose members served as a kind of police force. One of three high officials of this society wore a beaded mask made of leopard skin and native palm fiber cloth at the ceremonies held for the initiation of new members into the society.

Mary Lou Hultgren is a museum consultant who lives in Virginia Beach, VA.  She formerly was curator of collections and director of the Hampton University Museum.

Article of related interest: U.S. Zulu Connection — The Hampton Example