Art that tells stories about a whole civilization

The African-American Institute here is presenting "Masterpieces of the People's Republic of the Congo" -- in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Congolese capital of Brazzaville.

Drawn from five major American and European museums and 24 private collections, this excellent exhibition of 69 prime examples of Congolese art brings together objects from a hitherto unfamiliar region of the Congo. it's also the first time any of the pieces from the European collections have been seen in this country.

Of particular interest are 11 objects lent by the Musee de I'Homme in Paris, its most extensive loan to this country since the famous 1935 exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

It was during the late 1880s and 1890s, after many French colonial officials carried back to France the collections of Congolese art they had assembled, that European interest in African art began. Many of these works eventually found their way into the Musee de I'Homme. And later, after the turn of the century, they also served as a major source of inspiration for the early cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque.

A poignant aspect of this exhibition is the fact that none of the pieces in it belong to Congolese collections, either public or private. For this and other reasons, the People's Republic of the Congo has decided that the creation of a national museum in Brazzavile is of paramount importance if it wishes to safeguard its cultural heritage.

As Pascal Makambila, chief curator of Congolese museums, writes in the introduction to the exhibition catalog: "Traditional Congolese art is not a decorative art. It expresses a way of living, of thinking, of measuring time and space, of uniting the visible world with the invisible world, of uniting light with darkness, day with night, the mundane with the religious. In a word, it embodies a civilization."

The exhibition itself ranges widely among the various types of art produced by the Congolese people, but gives one the impression that each piece is among the best examples of its type. Although most of them are small -- quite a few are under 6 inches high and only a handful exceed 2 feet in any direction -- they are so well and compactly designed that they appear much more monumental than they actually are.

The exhibition offers the art of the Mani Kongo Kingdom, and the Vili, Yombe, Bembe, Kugni, Teke, Kota, Kwele, and Kuyu peoples. It illustrates two distinct types of social structure: one stemming from the south, a state society based on a long hierarchical tradition: the other from the north, consisting of scattered groups inhabiting the equatorial forest.

The artists of the south produced objects of ostentation, designed to reinforce the authority, prestige, or wealth of their owners. In the north, where political authority was spread through regulatory societies, art was designed to illustrate, explain, and propagate the laws. Since northern art generally consisted of masks modeled on mythical heroes familiar to entire regions, these secieties could disseminate information to a wide audience quickly and in a way that transcended local politics or rivalries.

Among the most important pieces on view are the "Nkisi Dog Fetish" and the Nkonde Nail Fetish," both from Vili, and both distinguished by the fact that the body of each is thoroughly studded with iron nails. The latter is a particularly good example of Congolese sculpture made in collaboration between a sculptor and a magician, the nganga.m The latter, during special ceremonies, drove nails into the sculpture, each one aimed at affecting a designated person or prey. The back of the statue was reserved for veneration to solicit a cure.

Also outstanding in this exhibition is the wooden "Puppet Head Kebekebe,'" from Kuyu. This is a headdress containing holes for feathers and is surmounted by a representation of a snake. It was designed to serve both as a puppet and as a mask during a theater-dance celebrating a cult initiation.

Of particular interest are the mirror fetishes, which were instruments of divination through which the ngangam interpreted the future by "reading" the mirror. These are quite small, relatively simple, and have a certain humorous charm, which, I'm sure, was quite unintentional.

It would be difficult to pick out other outstanding pieces from a selection so large and of such high quality. But I did especially enjoy the double-bodied "Fan" as well as the "Screptre With Double figure" from the Mani Kongo Kingdom; the "Kneeling Figure With Standing Child" from Vili; the "Gunpowder Flask" from Yombe; and the "Standing Figure" from Teke Buti.

The history of the Congo has been turbulent. Beginning in the 15th century and extending into colonial times, a large segment of its population migrated north of the Congo River, thereby gradually under-mining the power of the local kingdom and permitting Portuguese explorers to exercise their influence through trade and technical instruction.

In 1664 the Portuguese seized control of the kingdom and estabished Angola, which remained a stronghold for them on the coast north of the Congo River.

During the 18th century the kingdom was virtually plundered for the enrichment of local chiefs, whose cooperation was sought by the competing European trading companies. This pillaging of the Congo continued even after the English fleet began to patrol the west coast in order to protect English national interests and the international slave trade.

The international scramble for Africa ended in 1885 when the Congress of Berlin partitioned Africa among the contending colonia powers and allotted the Congo coastal region to France.

In 1962 the country gained its independence, but it remained within the French sphere of influence, a situation that ended with a public uprising and the establishment of the People's Republic of the Congo in 1966.

This exhibition at the African-American institute, 833 United Nations Plaza, New York, will remain on view through Jan. 24.

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