- Gesture and Power: Religion, Nationalism, and Everyday Performance in Congo by Yolanda Covington-Ward
Yolanda Covington-Ward’s Gesture and Power impressively bridges religious studies, anthropology, African history, dance studies, and performance studies — a disciplinary range that is no small feat. It is also a multisited text with a focus on Kinshasa and the lower Congo, and spans a 90-year historical period. Focused on the micropolitics of the body in interpersonal [End Page 166] encounters — especially through gestures such as bowing, clapping, and handshaking, as well as more heightened actions such as dancing and spirit-induced trembling — Gesture and Power argues that the micropolitics of the body can affect macrolevel social and political structures.
Covington-Ward situates her analysis in very specific cultural performances in the Congo, identifying how, in particular encounters, interpretations can be reshaped when we see the body as center, as conduit, and as catalyst. She focuses on moments where gestures converge with social interactions and power struggles, and in doing so, she turns to historical archival sources, where her method yields fresh insights through seeing the body as center, as is evident in the chapter on embodied resistance in the Colonial Belgian Congo in 1921 in which Covington-Ward reads primary sources from archives such as the American Baptist Missionary Society, the Baptist Missionary Society Archive, and the Archives Africaines in Belgium. In culling archival sources, the author focuses on specific references to bodies. She also turns to contemporary sources, including ones she generates herself by conducting both participant observation and over 60 formal interviews. The introduction locates this project within foundational theoretical works in performance studies by Erving Goffman, Victor Turner, Pierre Bourdieu, J.L. Austin, and Judith Butler, among others. While art historians such as Robert Farris Thompson and anthropologist Johannes Fabian have done groundbreaking work on similar topics in the Congo, Covington-Ward takes us into new territory by privileging everyday and nonbounded performances over staged and public ones. This approach reveals how performance mediates power and politics in daily life and how individual tactics relate to collective actions.
Early in the book there is a densely researched archival chapter centered on the 1921 revolt of the kingunza movement, characterized by some as a war between the soldiers and the prophets. Spirit-induced trembling became a source of agency for Africans and a source of tremendous anxiety for colonial missionaries, employers, and government agents who worked to suppress this subversive bodily enactment. Covington-Ward’s focus is on what she calls “performative encounters” which are, by definition, quotidian interpersonal interactions that are not bounded or set apart as theatrical (9). She avers that these everyday embodied interactions deserve analytic attention because they are central to the making and unmaking of authority and status. “Through performative encounters,” Covington-Ward argues, “the kingunza movement used a type of spiritual legitimacy gained from the spiritual realm to subvert Belgian colonial authority, using Kongo bodies as the key weapons of resistance” (73). The book makes a case for the potency of cultural performances, demonstrating how these became spaces for African agency in the “making and unmaking of political and religious authority in the Belgian Congo” (73).
Subsequent chapters illuminate embodied aspects of the postcolonial regime of the infamous demagogue Mobutu Sese Seko, including his state-enforced production of dancing and singing. Chapter 4 takes up the gendered dimensions of Mobutu’s “animation politique” such as the sexual exploitation of female dancers as well as their coerced performative encounters in the bedroom, thus linking the public and private arenas of gendered embodied citizenship (138). The final section brings the book into more contemporary times by exploring how a controversial organization known as Bundu dia Kongo (BDK) has mobilized everyday interactions and spiritual worship with the goal of creating a sovereign Kongo nation.1 This serves as a fitting and provocative bookend to a study that began with the 1921 kingunza movement.
While the historical reach of this book is impressive...