At first glance “Kongo Across the Waters” may not seem typical of the special event exhibitions usually offered at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, whose past shows have focused on American history (“George Washington Carver,” “First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image”). But there is a highly relevant connection and context. The Carter Center is currently involved in aiding needy communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the grassroots level, and this exhibition is a remarkable overview of the region’s cultural history between the 14th and 19th centuries, including the effects of the Congo diaspora as the slave trade and African immigrants influenced African American culture in Georgia, South Carolina, and other areas of the Southeast.
Organized by the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida with the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA Tervuren), “Kongo Across the Waters” features over 120 historic and contemporary objects as well as audio-visual components, photographs, wall texts and display case notes. It is so rich and densely layered that one visit is not enough to absorb the depth and range. I’m not even sure two visits would be adequate for there is a rarely seen world of wonders here from the carved ceremonial figures known as minkisi to face vessels (a type of alkaline-glazed stoneware) to agrarian baskets made from sewing bundles of grasses together in a continuous coil. Some of the more memorable highlights include Woyo carved lids (small dioramas of domestic life that served as tops for containers), burial accouterments such as a clay jar with encrusted shards and found objects that reflect the life of the deceased and a music display where you can hear audio samples of several string and percussion instruments like the pluriac and the ngongi bell.
The exhibition, arranged chronologically, concludes with modern day photographs of Congo culture by Norwegian anthropologist Espen Waehle and 21st-century Kongo inspired art by such contemporary artists as Radcliffe Bailey (based in Atlanta), José Bedia, Renée Stout, and Edouard Duval Carrié, whose painting La Traversèe (The Crossing) is an evocative depiction of omnipotent spirits from ancestral Africa traveling by boat to a new world.
Although this historical retrospective is celebratory, the Congo’s turbulent history of civil wars, European domination, slave trading, and mass plagues (smallpox and sleeping sickness) is not ignored and often referenced as factors that shaped certain cultural movements. But thanks to the preservation efforts of the curators, some of the most significant achievements from this civilization’s 500-year period have now been illuminated for future generations to ponder and reclaim.
Considering the range and complexity of the subject, “Kongo Across the Waters” is a fine example of how to make an enlightening exhibition of this magnitude for all ages without dumbing down the presentation or making it too dry and academic.
“Kongo Across the Waters,” the signature exhibition for Africa Atlanta 2014, is an initiative of the Georgia Tech Ivan College of Liberal Arts and its partners and will be on display at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum through September 21. It will travel to the Princeton University Art Museum, October 25, 2014-January 25, 2015, and the New Orleans Museum of Art, February 27-May 25, 2015.
Jeff Stafford is an Atlanta-based art and lifestyle writer.