Sunday, March 29, 2015

Kongo Over the Waters at NOMA

Ndunga Mask

Nkisi Nkondi Power Figure
The Kongo Kingdom ruled over a swath of west Africa for 500 years. The Kongo king and his nobles surrounded themselves with finely wrought artistic objects, and when Portuguese explorers arrived in 1483, trade relations were established. They exported commodities, crafts and slaves (captured tribal rivals) and imported Portuguese crafts, culture and religious icons. Many Kongo slaves ended up in New Orleans, gathering on Sundays in Congo Square to celebrate their traditional culture, legacies that eventually evolved into Creole cuisine, jazz and R&B. Their visual heritage is explored in this NOMA expo in the form of Kongo and African-American art ranging from antique to modern and contemporary works, all quite imaginative.

La Traversee by Eduard Duval-Carrie' (detail)

Scepter, Kongo Peoples, 19th century
Traditional African ritual masks and sculptural fetishes often suggest the European modernist styles they influenced. Some fine examples include a Nkisi Nkondi Power Figure--a carved wooden warrior who guards against evil influences. His fierce gaze and applied bodily adornments recall expressionism and assemblage sculpture. A Ndunga Mask, pictured, worn by priests to invoke the protective power of the ancestors, reflects the Kongo flair for highly stylized, yet eerily lifelike, carving that evokes surrealism's dreamlike visionary psychology. Those tendencies are reincarnated in contemporary works by Renée Stout, Radcliffe Bailey, Haitian-American Edouard Duval-Carrié, Cuban-American José Bedia and Congolese artist Steve Bandoma. Washington DC-based Stout, inspired by Marie Laveau, makes sculptural assemblages based on her updated "nkisi,"--psychically charged objects that comprise sculptures like her Self Portrait. Nkisi also figure strongly in paintings by Bedia, Bandoma and Bailey -- whose mixed media works augment his current show at the CAC. But Duval-Carrié's colorfully ghostly paintings are inspired by Haitian history, Kongo ancestors and voodoo spirits. Carnivalesque and Felliniesque, their aesthetic parallels to local Mardi Gras marching groups like the Société de Ste. Anne, and our secretive skull and bones gangs, suggest as yet unexplored connections between voodoo, surrealism and the pervasive, if subliminal, influence of Kongo culture on Louisiana's cultural life. ~Bookhardt / Kongo Across the Waters: Art of Central African and African American Cultures, Through May 25th, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.