Kongo across the Waters

Kongo across the Waters explores the vibrant culture of Kongo peoples from West Central Africa and the transmission and enduring influence of that culture in the Americas. Presenting early Kongo religious objects, Kongo and American sculpture and basketry, and contemporary art inspired by Kongo, the exhibition provides a visual narrative of the cultural exchange between Kongo and Europe that began in 1483 (when Portuguese navigators dropped anchor in the Congo River estuary) and of the later transmission of Kongo culture to the Americas through the Atlantic slave trade.

Vili artist (Loango Coast, Lower Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo), Tusk, 19th century. Elephant ivory, 74.5 x 8.5 x 29 cm. Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, BelgiumSpanning the coastal regions of present-day Angola, Republic of Congo, and Democratic Republic of Congo, the Kingdom of Kongo was vast, politically sophisticated, and artistically accomplished. Wearing finely worked raffia caps and open-weave tunics, the court of King Nzinga a Nkuwu greeted the Portuguese with a chorus of ivory trumpets. The Portuguese ships returned to Europe with gifts of Kongo textiles and ivory horns as well as with ambassadors from the Kongo nobility. Thus began a journey of art and ideas across three continents, over five hundred years. 

Following the Kongo king’s introduction to Christianity and his subsequent conversion, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Kongo artists merged older Kongo traditions with those introduced by European Christians, making religious medallions, sculptures, and crucifixes. At first the artists modified imported works; then they melded local iconography with European imports, creating novel hybrid forms. Artists portrayed Christ figures with indigenous hairstyles and fashioned sculptures of St. Anthony to be used in both Christian and local healing practices. Distributed widely among the newly Christian faithful, these objects made visible the redefinition of Kongo as a modern Christian kingdom.Yombe artists (Mayombe, Lower Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo), Power figure (Nkisi Nkondi Mangaaka), 19th century. Wood, shell, vegetal fiber, metal, pigment, glass, 132 x 49 x 35 cm. Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium

The Kingdom of Kongo’s regional dominance strengthened after this initial late-fifteenth-century contact with Portugal partly as a result of joining the global network of Christian nations. However, throughout the late seventeenth and into the eighteenth century the kingdom largely disintegrated, and by the nineteenth century, as colonial powers moved to control Kongo’s resources and claimed possession of the area and its citizens, the relationship between European nations and Kongo shifted from one of alliance to one of conflicting interests shaped largely by trade and empire. 

As interactions with Europeans became the domain of local and regional chiefs, who now controlled the trade in agriculture and the flow of rubber and ivory between the interior and the coast, regalia linked Kongo rulers to their predecessors while at the same time visually announcing their current political status. Ivory trumpets, raffia caps, and woven shawls—insignias of power from the preceding centuries—continued to be used as indications of leadership. However, competition for prestige objects among these chiefs fostered artistic innovation, and demand increased for finely worked arts of authority that symbolized and communicated power. Examples of intricately carved wood staffs, flywhisks, and ivory scepters showcase how these works reflected the success of the newly empowered chiefs.

 In addition to the increased demand for chiefly items, other aspects of artistic production and ritual practice were influenced—and Kongo aesthetics enriched—by artists who continued the practice of merging local and imported ideas. Nineteenth-century traders in Kongo imported a flood of materials—mirrors, tacks, fabrics, glass beads, and various types of crockery. Wealthy Kongolese accumulated such articles, demonstrating their familiarity with the European lifestyle and projecting power and prestige. Grave figures and hats fuse Kongo iconography with European style. Pitchers decorated with glass beads and metal tacks, as well as minkisi (containers for spirits and medicines) covered with trade cloth and mirrors, reveal how imported and Kongo materials were combined, enhancing the objects’ visual presence and ritual efficacy.

American artists (South Carolina), Conjurer’s Cane, 20th century. Various materials (wood, cloth, metal, plastic), 93.9 x 16.3 cm. Tubman African American Museum, Macon, GeorgiaObjects traveled in both directions. Missionaries, colonial administrators, ethnographers, and traders sought personal tokens of their stays in Kongo. This demand for souvenirs resulted in the creation of a new genre of ivory carving, the Loango tusk, eagerly sought by Europeans involved in trade along the coast. These tusks with vignettes of Kongo life spiraling upwards also often depict aspects of the slave trade as seen along the coast. 

As early as the sixteenth century, before the first cargo of slaves arrived in the Americas, slavery existed as part of the domestic order in Kongo. However, as Kongo joined the burgeoning Atlantic world, slaves for export were supplied to the international market to meet the demand from plantations in the Americas. Eventually, Kongo sent millions of slaves to plantations across the Atlantic. In the southern United States, Kongolese formed the largest single group of enslaved Africans. 

Kongolese who were transported to the Americas as 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. In radically changed and extremely difficult environments, they maintained, blended, and reinvented their spiritual, artistic, and domestic practices, to be passed on to their descendants, establishing the basis for new cultural and artistic traditions. The works on view in the exhibition—mid-nineteenth-century ceramic face vessels, canes carved after the Civil War, and contemporary baskets—highlight the dynamic evolution and resiliency of Kongo traditions.

Additionally, the music and dance traditions that enslaved Kongo people brought with them across the Atlantic form the core of many American performance genres. In particular, New Orleans and the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia were crucibles for blending Kongo rhythmic patterns with other African and European musical forms, ultimately generating new musical styles including, most importantly, jazz.

Today, artists of African descent working in Africa, the Caribbean, and North and South America dynamically engage with Kongo history, spirituality, and iconography in their creation of new works of art. Kongo across the Waters features recent works by Steve Bandoma (Democratic Republic of Congo), Edouard Duval-Carrié (Haiti and USA), José Bedia (Cuba), Renée Stout (USA), and Radcliffe Bailey (USA), artists who draw from Kongo concepts and motifs.Radcliffe Bailey (American, b. 1968), By the River, 1997. Mixed media on wood, 203.2 x 203.2 x 20.3 cm. Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin © Radcliffe Bailey

 Organized by the University of Florida’s Harn Museum of Art and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, with more than one hundred works drawn primarily from the Royal Museum’s world-renowned collection, Kongo across the Waters includes numerous pieces never before exhibited in the United States. The exhibition is Princeton University’s single most important project to address issues of this nation’s cultural and historic relationship with Africa through the lens of the artistic traditions of Africa and the African diaspora.

A broad range of lectures by art historians, historians, anthropologists, and artists will accompany Kongo across the Waters, in collaboration with the Department of Art and Archaeology, the Program in African Studies, and the Center for African American Studies.

Holly Ross
Consulting Curator


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; Holly and David Ross; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; 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.