The Idea of Kongo in Contemporary Art

The exhibition Kongo across the Waters begins its exploration of the vibrant art of the kingdom of Kongo (located in present-day Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Republic of the Congo) in the fifteenth century—but the story is an ongoing one. In recent years, contemporary artists working in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas have engaged with the kingdom of Kongo’s history, spiritual traditions, and aesthetics. This fall, Chika Okeke-Agulu, associate professor in the Department of Art and Archaeology, taught the seminar “Kongo Art,” which engaged with the exhibition Kongo across the Waters to explore the artistic qualities and legacy of the Kongo kingdom, as well as the effects of Belgian colonial rule (1885–1960) on modern art in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Juliana Ochs Dweck, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow for Collections Engagement, spoke with Professor Okeke-Agulu about how contemporary artists look to Kongo arts for inspiration.

JOD: What is it about Kongo art that has compelled such deep artistic engagement?
COA: The Kongo as an idea insinuated itself into global consciousness for good and bad reasons. One cannot divorce the popularity of the Kongo/Congo in the global imagination from the terrible history of the Congo Free State (under the colonial rule of King Leopold II of Belgium), where the idea of international human rights was more or less born. Kongo was the place that writers, activists, and politicians were talking about—that made it an idea and not simply a place. Out of that experience, Kongo became synonymous with Africa and a symbol of the terrors of imperialism and colonialism. For that reason, in the same way that V. Y. Mudimbe speaks of “the idea of Africa” one could also speak of “the idea of Kongo/Congo.”

At the same time, Kongo also wrote itself into the history of the modern by virtue of the quality of its art. The Kongo is one of the richest artistic regions in Africa, and some of the works that made it into major museums come from the Kongo—works that inspire awe, admiration, or fear. The idea of Kongo, its deep history, the richness of the art that came out of it, and the sheer size of the Congo area all provide contemporary artists searching for a deep past, a place with which they could identify—an ancestral Africa.

 Many of the artists working within Kongo’s heritage incorporate aspects of Kongo spirituality into their work. Why do minkisi (sculptures or vessels that contain and invoke powerful spirits) hold such appeal for contemporary artists of African descent?
One cannot encounter minkisi figures, particularly the anthropomorphic ones, and just pass them by. They are such arresting, compelling objects that you just have to stop and look at them. But because minkisi also participate in larger spiritual relations and because of the influence of Kongo religion in the New World (like Haitian Vodou), the nkisi (sing.) has become a symbol of the new religion. In the New World, syncretic religions became alternatives to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and so for those who wanted to identify with a self that was different from the European other, Kongo religions and the visual culture associated with them became important resources. It’s the combination of the physical manifestation of these objects and their very important religious significance that draws artists who are looking beyond mere formalism: artists for whom art is not simply the manipulation of form but a process through which one renegotiates one’s relationship with the world.

Renée Stout (American, born 1958), Self-Portrait no. 2 (Self-Portrait as Inkisi), 2008. Metal, fabric, glass, and organic materials, 83.8 x 17.8 x 17.8 cm. Collection of the artist. © Renée Stout / photo by Randy A. BatistaCan you give an example of an artist whose work goes beyond the aesthetic or beyond the spiritual?
One can think of the work of Renée Stout as an aesthetic, artistic inquiry that goes beyond depicting the self. It’s an engagement with the self, an examination of one’s personhood that can border on a spiritual journey. Some of these artists (I am thinking also of the Cuban-American artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons) are often described as searching for or expressing their blackness and African diasporic identity, but it’s a much more personal and more profound enterprise. There’s also a level of identification with the ritual process (of creating and invoking spirits through minkisi objects): a process where the sculptor and the ritual priest merge. One has to find that shadowy boundary between art and spirituality that operates in works such as those of Renée Stout.

I understand that since the 1960s artists engaging with Kongo have grappled with the difficult colonial and postcolonial histories of the region. Are there artists today who make it part of their work to empower the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo?
You see in the work of Chéri Samba and the so-called popular artists who work in Kinshasa, DRC, today the ways in which they are engaging directly with the experience of the past and the present. Through art, they form a cadre of social critics. There are very few avenues for this kind of political engagement (in the DRC) that don’t open up individuals to state violence. Art tends to provide a safe place to launch these critiques. You see it in other parts of the continent as well. It’s almost as if these dictatorial regimes don’t reckon with the power of art, which is why they leave artists alone, but not the journalists or writers who are more readily jailed or killed—even though artists are also engaged in forms of political critique. 

What do you hope your students will take away from your class on Kongo art?
I hope my students will learn more about Kongo art and be able to not just look at but also to read the objects—that’s the first thing. Also, my own work engages with social and political issues, along with a deep commitment to aesthetics and form; I hope my students use the course as a platform for examining the relationship between art and politics. This will enrich, not diminish, their appreciation for the works of art themselves. And so far so good!