Do the Congo

Assassination and political upheaval often come to mind when students of African history think of the Congo.

As a major focal point of 1960s decolonization, when indigenous people across the continent worked to overthrow European rulers, the Congolese attracted attention, largely due to the efforts of charismatic freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba. Murdered in 1961, the prime minister’s life and activism was depicted in Raoul Peck’s critically acclaimed 2000 film Lumumba. The prime minister remains a national hero in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Yet, in the long political shadow cast over its region, images of beauty have often been hidden, at least to outsiders. The Congo Basin, which encompasses not only the Democratic Republic but also the many rain forests, plains and wooded savannas of small communities and large cities surrounding the Congo River, is culturally fertile.

Masterworks of African Art: The Congo Basin, an exhibition at Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan Museum of Art, is a collection of pieces which reflect the spiritual and personal beliefs traditionally held by the basin’s inhabitants. The display of approximately 25 artifacts is housed in The James L. and Vivian A. Curtis Gallery of African and African-American Art.

Open to the public through May 2, the collection features masks, sculptures and staffs. Noteworthy is the extensive number of tribal affiliations — including Eastern Pende, Lwalwa, Ekonda, Kuba, Holo, Yombe and Chokwe, among others — represented by the creations.

“The broad geographic and cultural identities of the region have been mitigated by the presence of the Congo River,” reads an introduction to the exhibit. “The primary transportation artery, it has served to diffuse cultural identities as both ideas and artworks traveled its length and its webbing of tributaries. This broader exchange has led to a fascinating cross-fertilization of artistic form, ritualistic practice and other cultural influences.”

Most striking are the masculine images, such as the nkisi, or great power figure, a two-foot, mostly wooden sculpture of a man carrying what appears to be a medicine bag. The nkisi was the receptacle “where powerful spirits could be contained and appealed to by specialists in ritual and healers, diviners and secret society leaders,” exhibition notes indicate. Similarly, the ancestor or power figures, represented in the exhibit by a crouching elder, have been used “to attract benevolent spirits to the household.”

The “female effigy” includes a clay pot molded at its opening into the shape of a woman’s adorned head. Metals and fabrics are also used in the art, which often emphasizes dramatic facial expressions and prominent genitalia.

The Congo Basin exhibit was guest-curated by former Detroit Institute of Arts curator Michael Kan. Loaned and donated pieces from the DIA and various private collections comprise the exhibition.

In a powerful visual contrast to the distinctly African characteristics and cultural adornment given to most of the artifacts, there are occasional reminders of Europe’s influence on the Congo region. For example, an intricately carved black staff encased at the rear of the exhibition depicts a male figure wearing a top hat as its handle. Exhibition narrative explains that staffs were carried by African nobility as a symbol of their standing among the people.

“Christian missionaries, largely from Portugal, also have influenced the works created in the region, providing new symbols that were incorporated into the local visual vocabulary of the Congo,” the narrative states.

Ironically, as Lumumba helped lead the resistance against Belgian political domination, even the native artists began to associate the imagery of outsiders with their definition of power.


See Masterworks of African Art: The Congo Basin at the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s James L. and Vivian A. Curtis Gallery of African and African-American Art (525 S. State St. , Ann Arbor). Call 734-763-UMMA or visit the Web site, for further information. Ends May 2.

Eddie B. Allen Jr. is a Detroit-based freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]
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