Harn Museum examines cultural legacy of Kongo kingdom

Published: October 23rd, 2013

Category: Announcements, InsideUF, Top Stories

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida this week opened the first exhibition at an American museum to deeply explore the legacy of Kongo culture.

“Kongo across the Waters” presents more than 160 works of historic and contemporary art and artifacts — including several previously never before exhibited archaeological discoveries —spanning five centuries from the 16th century when Kongo first emerged as a major Atlantic presence, to the present day.

On view through March 23, 2014, “Kongo across the Waters” reveals new cultural connections across multiple centuries and continents, and traces the continuing and under-explored impact of Kongo art-making practices on African and African-diaspora artists in the 21st century.

The exhibition showcases recent works by Steve Bandoma, Edouard Duval-Carrié, José Bedia, Renée Stout, and Radcliffe Bailey, artists who draw from the Kongo artistic tradition. Among the recent works included in the show is Renée Stout’s “Self Portrait #2 (Self-Portrait as Inkisi)” and Radcliffe Bailey’s Returnal,” a 2007 work that was damaged in New York during Hurricane Sandy. This will be the work’s first public viewing following a restoration that was overseen by the artist.

Co-organized by the Harn Museum of Art and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, the exhibition will include a broad range of media including sculpture, drawings, engravings, paintings, baskets, textiles, and musical instruments to illuminate the rich heritage of the Kongo peoples and to trace the transformations of Kongo cultural production from the colonial and post-colonial periods through the modern era.

 “At its height, the Kongo kingdom occupied a pivotal position — geographically, geopolitically, and culturally — in the continent’s early interactions with Western colonial powers, creating a legacy that can still be felt today in the Diaspora communities of the American Southeast,” said Susan Cooksey, curator of African Art at the Harn. “We’re especially pleased to include in this exhibition several artifacts from the Kongo Diaspora that have rarely been seen in a museum setting.”

The exhibition will showcase numerous historically significant archaeological finds, including colonoware pottery from a recent excavation at the Dean Hall plantation in South Carolina. The pottery is engraved with markings signifying the religious and cultural practices of enslaved Africans who lived and worked at the site during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The exhibition will also include a medallion that has been discovered at Fort Mose in Florida — the first legally sanctioned free black municipality in the United States — and an 18th-century burial ground in Louisiana that are thought to combine traditional Christian imagery with the visual language of Kongo culture.

“We look forward to enhancing scholarship and understanding of a society that has left a tremendous imprint on the African diaspora in the United States,” said Rebecca Nagy, director of the Harn Museum of Art and a noted scholar of African art. “Appropriately for an exhibition that explores cultural exchange across continents, ‘Kongo across the Waters’ will open exactly 500 years after the first African visitors to the Americas, traveling as free conquistadors with Juan Ponce de Leon, arrived in what is now Florida.”

The exhibition is curated by Susan Cooksey, curator of African art at the Harn Museum of Art; Hein Vanhee, curator of African collections at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren; and Robin Poynor, professor of art history, University of Florida.

It will travel to additional venues, including the Carter Presidential Library and Museum in cooperation with the Georgia Institute of Technology from May 15, 2014 through Sept. 21, 2014; Princeton University Art Museum from Oct. 25, 2014, through Jan. 25, 2015; and the New Orleans Museum of Art from Feb. 27, 2015, through May 25, 2015.

A fully illustrated publication will accompany the exhibition and will include essays by 31 scholars of Kongo art and culture in Africa and the Diaspora.

The exhibition is co-organized by the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium and made possible by the AEC Trust, Dr. Madelyn M. Lockhart, Christie’s, UF Office of the Provost, UF International Center, UF Office of Research, UF School of Art and Art History, UF Center for African Studies, the C. Frederick and Aase B Thompson Foundation, Hyatt and Cici Brown, William and Hazel Hough, Robert and Janet Kemerait, Nella Taylor, Drs. Israel and Michaela Samuelly, Robert Haiman, Mary Kilgour, anonymous donors, and with additional support from the Harn Program Endowment and the Londono Family Endowment. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

This exhibition was developed to highlight a milestone in the history of African presence in North America and provide an important complement to Viva Florida 500, a program commemorating 500 years of European presence in Florida.

For more information on the exhibition and programs, visit the exhibition website at www.kongoacrossthewaters.org.

Admission to the museum is free. For more information, call 352-392-9826 or visit www.harn.ufl.edu.

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