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Reviewed by:
  • Kongo across the Waters ed. by Susan Cooksey, Robin Poynor, Hein Vanhee
  • Vicky Van Bockhaven (bio)
Kongo across the Waters
edited by Susan Cooksey, Robin Poynor, and Hein Vanhee
Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013. 458 pages, 205 color ill. (including b/w originals), 2 maps, bibliography, index.
$100.00 cloth

The catalogue Kongo across the Waters accompanied an exhibition at the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in 2013, which traveled to three other museums in the US. The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, joined with the Harn to realize these projects. Complementing the Viva Florida 500 program, celebrating 500 years of European presence in Florida in 2013, the catalogue and the travelling exhibition claim to mark a milestone in the history of African presence in North America, for with the first Europeans, the first Africans also arrived. The book sets off discussing the biographies of two African crew members of the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon who came ashore on La Florida in 1513. It is emphasized that these Africans were free men, as opposed to many of the people following in their footsteps, and may well have been Kongo. Of course, the Kongo kingdom is well historicized in Euro-African relations and its coast became a major hub for the transatlantic trade in humans; approximately one fourth of Africans exported to the US came from the Kongo. This caused Kongo culture to leave a considerable imprint on American traditions.

The catalogue deals in an extensive way with Kongo history, culture, and arts, not only in its region of origin at the West-Central African coast, but also with Kongo heritage brought to the Americas from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. The content is divided into three parts: "Kongo in Africa," "Kongo in the Americas," and "Kongo in Contemporary Art." The catalogue offers a very broad view on Kongo heritage, but the essays are of varying quality and depth; some are written by researchers who spent a lifetime investigating aspects of Kongo culture, while others who are less familiar with the region treat their subject more distantly.

The first essays treat the history and culture of the royal court at the capital Mbanza Kongo (in Angola) between the fifteenth and nineteenth century. Special attention is devoted to the unique diplomatic relations between Kongo and Portuguese royal houses, stressing a period of equality and exchange of both visitors and valuable gifts between royal houses. European influences and the special role of early European missionaries in Kongo society impacted spiritual life and resulted in a syncretic culture reflected in ritual objects and in nobles' regalia, such as the well-known crucifixes and the mbele a lulendo daggers. These were locally produced yet modelled after European objects and took on specific local meanings and uses. The scope is gradually enlarged from the elite culture to include some aspects of wider society, focusing especially on spiritual life embodied in minkisi and on revivalism in Kongo religion, in which therapeutic cults such as lemba and life-cycle rituals such as khimba played an important role to remedy social change, prevent crisis, and reinvigorate the universe. The trade of enslaved people is contextualized against its economic impetus and is connected to the heights and crises of the Kongo kingdom over time. The rise and abolition of the Atlantic trade from the Loango coast between the seventeenth and nineteenth century is treated, including details on numbers, age, gender, and origins of the enslaved and causes of enslavement. Attention is paid to particularities of the journey across the ocean and life histories of freed slaves.

The catalogue's second part, "Kongo in the Americas," is predominantly built up around material and visual continuities, but some attention is also paid to linguistic, musical, and culinary influences. Kongo's influence is located within several kinds of objects, either archaeological or folk, but also in sites such as graveyards, home yards, and other landscapes. Within home yard and landscape art this link may be mostly associative, but for many objects the Kongo accordance is very substantial. In the first part of the catalogue this became clear by comparing commemorative...


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