I first visited the Kongo Across the Waters exhibit currently at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum on a drizzly and humid day in June at about 11 am. The mist was starting to turn to rain, so I hurried through the permanent collection and into the temporary exhibition space entrance, hoping to head home before a downpour.
The exhibition’s decor of warm reds and oranges that evoked the dry heat of Western Central Africa immediately made me forget about the weather outside as I began to focus on the traveling exhibit comprised of more than 160 pieces, most from the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium.
The exhibit is in Atlanta as part of Africa Atlanta 2014, a yearlong initiative to reinvent economic and cultural bonds between Africa, the Americas, and Europe. I knew about Africa Atlanta 2014, and I love museums and I wanted to know more about Africa, so I decided to investigate.
I was not quite sure what to expect from Kongo Across the Waters, as all I really knew about the Kongo was that there had been mention of it in my high school world history class.
Thankfully, the exhibit did a fantastic job of setting me at ease at once. I was greeted by the first of many informational panels that briefly introduced the Kongo and its history, from forming a sophisticated and powerful kingdom in the 16th century south of the Congo River, to its first trade interactions with the Portuguese, who landed on the coast of Kongo in 1483.
The first section of the exhibit deals with this early history, showing the textiles and other goods created in Kongo before interaction with Europe, and how the commercial relationship affected both Kongo and European products.
I found it fascinating to learn how craftsmen both in Europe and Kongo began imitating the other cultures crafts and enjoyed seeing the unique fusions of traditional Kongo arts, which emphasize earthy and elaborate designs with the art of Europe.
Before seeing the exhibit, I had not known that people in Kongo were converted to Christianity as early as the 15th century, so I was surprised to learn that this conversion was one of the first major effects of the Kongo-European cultural trade relationship in 1491.
Once I reached the part of the exhibit showing art created in Kongo after the conversion, I saw that the art created definitely reflects that. Christian ideas and symbolism apparently blended well with traditional Kongo beliefs, explaining its rapid and wide acceptance in Kongo.
My favorite example of this is that the cross shape in Kongo symbolizes a crossroads where the world of the living and of the dead intersect—in a sense, life after death, which meshes well with the Christian symbolism of the cross.
Many pieces of art showed non-traditional uses of such Christian symbols, including crucifixes with female forms on them, and Kongo pottery decorated with crosses.
The first section made me feel like I had at least begun to understand Kongo culture.
The second section explores the Kongo presence in North America. The people of this region made up the majority of slaves present in the West, a not-so-fun-fact I did not know before seeing the exhibit. Needless to say, the traditions they brought with them greatly influenced American slave culture.
Many archeological artifacts on display show the continuation of Kongo rituals in the United States.
One of the most prominent rituals was the burying of minkisi, traditional Kongo objects believed to attract and hold spirits which could be used for protection or for harming enemies.
I learned that minkisi often contained elements such as pottery shards, broken mirrors, rocks, beads, and other trinkets. Several of these bundles were found concealed in or near Southeast American plantation houses.
The third section is my favorite, because it has a much larger breadth of artifacts on display.
It focuses on the flourishing of Kongo trade items and other crafts with the decline of the slave trade in the 1800s. Craftsmen became busy creating items to trade with Europe as well as making much demanded symbols of power and wealth for tribal leaders.
Such symbols include nkisi power figures, which were elaborately carved fierce human figures that were believed to track down anyone who might break a trade agreement or steal from the nkisi’s owner.
They accomplished their function of being incredibly frightening quite well. I’m not superstitious, but I was certainly glad to have a pane of glass between me and these figures.
Religious ritual still maintained a great deal of importance in Kongo culture, as seen by the detailed carved masks for religious leaders and instruments.
The simple white walls of this part of the exhibit made the incredible detail of every figure, cloth, and instrument really stand out.
I found myself crouching down beside the displays to look closer at the objects, mesmerized by the level of detail the craftsmen put into their works.
I also found the placement of the fourth section is interesting, because as you walk through the first three sections, you walk in a straight line.
As you walk, you are surrounded by the numerous African pieces, observing their intricate patterns and becoming used to the look of Kongo crafts.
To enter the fourth section, which focuses on the presence of Kongo culture in modern African-American culture in the modern U.S. and Caribbean, you make a left turn, which puts the rest of the exhibit just out of view.
Then suddenly, you are surrounded by items that were recognizable before entering the exhibit, such as woven sweet grass baskets, yard decorations, and stylized grave markers.
However, all of these items take on new meaning because you recognize the similarities to the other objects in the first parts of Kongo Across the Waters.
This section uses videos and displays to show how so many facets of life in America are derived from West Africa, iincluding the “step” style dance popular with fraternities and sororities to styles of decoration.
I found this section particularly interesting because I am currently interning at the Atlanta History Center, which has displays and events related to slave culture in the earlier days of the United States, so I was interested to learn more about how that culture developed in more modern days.
The last section is the smallest. It shows several examples of work by modern artists who have been influenced by Kongo tradition.
The vivid and complex designs of the large scale paintings and multimedia works show the continued effects of Kongo culture.
I was surprised to learn that the artists do not come exclusively from western African backgrounds, so the fact that all were inspired by Kongo art shows the pervasiveness of Kongo culture in the modern West.
I would definitely recommend that anyone go see this exhibit, not only to learn about the fascinating history of the Kongo, but about how it has shaped American history and culture in innumerable ways.
The exhibit is designed in such a way that it makes African culture and artifacts accessible and understandable to everyone, even those who, like me, lack a high degree of familiarity with African culture.
Visiting Kongo Across the Waters gave me a much deeper appreciation for Kongo culture and its effect on American culture and inspired me to learn more about Kongo and other African regions, as well as their effects on the world.
Anna Democko was born in Atlanta and has lived here her entire life. She attended several schools in the Atlanta area, including St. Pius X Catholic High School, and is currently a sophomore at Georgia College and State University pursuing a degree in history with a concentration in public history and a minor in museum studies.
She enjoys museum studies because they incorporate the study of history, art, and how to share the highlights of human accomplishment with others. She hopes to graduate in the spring of 2016 and work in the museum field.
Anna is currently interning at the Atlanta History Center as the public programs intern. She enjoys learning about how history museums operate and being involved in planning and executing the museums different events. She is also working with Global Atlanta by visiting Southeast United States museums and writing commentaries of the different exhibits.