Kongo across the Waters

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KONGO across the Waters

February 27 – May 25, 2015

Exhibition labels and text
Kongo across the Waters explores the vibrant culture of Kongo peoples from West Central Africa and the transmission and enduring influence of that culture in the United States. Over a period of more than 500 years Kongo peoples developed a sophisticated culture in West Central Africa. By the end of the fifteenth century they had formed a vast kingdom south of the Congo River.
When Portuguese ships first appeared off the coast of Kongo in 1483 Kongos were most eager to establish commercial relations with the newcomers. Portuguese ships took back the finest textiles and ivory carvings that were much admired in Europe. Kongo’s engagement went beyond the mere exchange of goods and king Nzinga a Nkuwu’s conversion to Christianity in 1491 was a prelude to the active participation of Kongo elites in an emerging Atlantic ‘creole culture.’ In many ways Kongos transformed European cultural imports into new hybrid forms that remained meaningful within their own understanding of the world.
When confronted with an increasing Portuguese demand for slaves, Kongo initially supplied individuals from the more remote interior of Central Africa. Later internal conflicts within Kongo led to the enslavement of more and more Kongolese who by the thousands were shipped to plantations in the Americas. In the southern United States Kongolese formed the largest single group of enslaved Africans and they left a distinctive mark on the development of African American cultures. Kongo heritage in the United States is found in the archaeological record, in diverse folk arts, and in music and dance.
Kongo across the Waters explores the legacies of Kongo history and culture in both West Central Africa and the southern United States, and demonstrates how Kongo art continues to inspire contemporary artists today. The exhibition is the result of the scholarly collaboration between the Harn Museum at the University of Florida and the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. Many of the loans from the collections of the Royal Museum of Central Africa have never been seen before in the United States.

The Kingdom of Kongo

In the fifteenth century, or even earlier, a town situated on a hilltop about seventy miles south of the Congo River became the center of a powerful kingdom, called Kongo. From the town of Mbanza Kongo, a growing territory was brought under the control of a king and his nobility. To distinguish themselves from commoners, they surrounded and dressed themselves with tokens of their high position, which included delicate objects carved in ivory and finely woven and decorated raffia textiles.

A dramatic encounter in 1483 marked the further development of the Kongo kingdom, when white sailors came from a kingdom that they called Portugal, across the waters. More foreign visitors landed on Kongo’s shore in the following years. Prestigious gifts were exchanged and talks were about trade and religious matters. Kongo elites were eager to learn and adopted the seemingly powerful religion of the whites, Christianity. Priests from Europe taught the people many new stories, prayers and songs, and they distributed crucifixes and images of saints.

Filippo Pigafetta

Italian, 1533 - 1604

Engraved by Johann Theodor de Bry

Tabula Geogra Regni Congo,

Map of the Kongo Kingdom

1598, Ink on paper

George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Map and Imagery Library Collection, G8650 1598.B79
This beautifully illustrated map mostly reflects sixteenth-century European imagination about the Kongo kingdom, with imaginary rivers and lakes and fortified medieval style towns scattered over its territory. The largest of these is the kingdom’s capital, São Salvador. The map’s legend features the coat of arms of King Alvaro I of Kongo (r. 1568–87).
Sword of Honor

Kongo people

Lower Congo, DRC

Late 16th century

Wood, iron

Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, HO.1955.9.22

The Kongo kingdom’s elite acquired swords of honor that were displayed and used at a variety of occasions. They were locally produced and about one meter long, crafted with the blade, guard and handle in the same plane. The guard was elaborately shaped and decorated, with one “arm” going up and the other pointing down, and with a pommel that had two eyelike openings. The design is deliberately anthropomorphic and may have referred to the ideal of the vigorous sangamento dancer.

These swords were collected in the twentieth century in regions once part of the kingdom. They were called mbele a lulendo, sword of power. Although we do not know their precise date of manufacture, it seems that for a long time such swords had been powerful symbols of legitimacy. Originally inspired by Iberian examples, they combined deep-rooted central African metaphors of iron kingship with European-derived symbolism of swords as emblems of nobility and Christian knighthood.

Staff Finial

Kongo people

Lower Congo, DRC

17th–18th century


Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, HO.1953.100.1

The number of ordained clergy in the kingdom of Kongo was always small in proportion to the entire population and Christianity therefore relied heavily on lay ministers. They were drawn from Kongo’s nobility and called “masters of the church.” Their main role was to teach, so that the basic elements of the doctrine, and the prayers and songs, would be known by the people.
Church masters carried staffs with finely decorated brass finials as symbols of their authority. The two finials here show a sitting human figure with hands folded as if in prayer, put against a square frame that has a cross on top or leaf-like decorations at the corners. Such frames may refer to the altars and chapels that missionaries built on their travels through the countryside.

Solongo people


18th–19th century


Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, MO.1967.63.802

Ivory trumpets, called mpungi, were crafted with great care from an elephant tusk that was hollowed from the inside and scraped thin. The example here shows both European and Kongo style characteristics. The etching references the cross of the Order of Christ, established in Kongo in the early seventeenth century, while the side placement of the mouthpiece is more typical of African-style trumpets. Such delicate trumpets were used only within the retinues of Kongo chiefs. Ivory trumpets were played during the funeral ceremonies of important chiefs and on the occasion of the investiture of a successor. They were also used at feasts, for rousing men during times of war, and for announcing visitors.
Pieter Van der Aa

Dutch (Leiden), 1659-1733


Four Scenes of the Kongo Kingdom, from Galerie Agréable du Monde


Copperplate engraving

Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art: Museum purchase funds provided by an Anonymous Donor, 2012.59

The scenes of the Kongo kingdom in this engraving were not based on the artist’s observation but on an imaginative interpretation of accounts of others. The print was published in Pieter Van der Aa’s multi-volume illustrated atlas, Galerie Agréable du Monde, that epitomized the use of images of exotic places and peoples that became popular in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The four scenes of the Kongo kingdom, include (from top left, clockwise): the king receiving foreign visitors, clothing and weapons of a warrior, noblewomen, and noblemen.

Joan Blaeu

Dutch, 1596-1673

Regna Congo et Angola,

Map of Kongo and Angola

1662, Ink on paper

George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Map and Imagery Library Collection, G8630 1662.B5 CARTA
The map shows the itinerary of the Dutch traveler Jan van Herder, who traveled from Luanda via São Salvador to the Kwango River in 1642. Some of his observations are noted on the map in Middle Dutch, among which several mentions of a Tolhuÿs (toll house), indicating places where passing trade caravans had to pay tribute.
Kongo’s Conversion to Christianity

In 1491, the Kongo king Nzinga a Nkuwu demanded to be baptized, along with several members of the nobility. He took the Portuguese name of João I. After a war with opponents of the new religion, his son and successor Afonso I (r. 1509-1542) did much to spread Christianity throughout the kingdom. The Christian doctrine was translated into terms and concepts taken from Kongo cosmology and belief, and thus made easily understandable to most of the people. A Catholic priest, for example, was a nganga and things holy were called nkisi, terms that made sense to Kongolese.

After study in Europe, Afonso’s son Henrique became the first bishop of Kongo, and from 1518 to 1532 he developed a Kongo born ordained clergy. The organization of the church remained firmly in Kongo hands, also when the local clergy was not renewed and European priests became increasingly scarce. Lay Christians in the roles of interpreter, church master or catechist continued an educational system, which was the base of Kongo’s church. For more than three centuries, Kongo was considered a Christian kingdom by the highest church authorities in Rome.

Kongo people

Lower Congo, DRC

18th century

Wood, copper alloy

Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, HO.1955.9.17

After the king’s conversion in 1491, Christianity became the dominant religion in Kongo. In its practice Christianity was allowed to blend with some principles of more traditional Kongo belief. Kongo ideas of a fluid connection between the realm of the living and that of the dead, long symbolized by the cross, and Christian considerations of death and regeneration came together in Kongo’s understanding of the crucifix. The crucifix was a powerful symbol in both Kongo’s church and in the way Kongolese thought about the world in which they lived.

In many instances the cross, as well as the Christ figure, were cast in open molds. The Christ figure was frequently stylized, its face severely abstracted and hands and feet treated as fan-like forms. Cast crosses allowed secondary praying figures called orants to be placed in relief on the upright portion of the cross or perched on the cross-arm.

Female Christ Crucifix Figure

Kongo people

Lower Congo, DRC

19th century


Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, HO.1973.48.1

Obviously intended to be suspended from wooden crosses, rare figures such as this replace the Christ figure with a female figure. Some scholars interpret it as a reference to Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, an eighteenth century visionary who claimed she was visited by St. Anthony, who took over her body. Her mission to restore the Kongo throne and to re-occupy the capital of Mbanza Kongo led to her arrest in 1706 on charges of heresy and to her burning at the stake. The Antonian movement she founded continued for several decades, but many of the devotees of the movement were enslaved and sent to the Americas.

Hybrid Objects, Multiple Meanings

Sixteenth and seventeenth-century Kongolese merged older traditions with those introduced by the Portuguese. New ceremonial and religious objects were introduced in ways that allowed them to embody meanings derived from Kongo cosmology and belief. While inspired by European models, swords of honor and crucifixes recalled previously established philosophical, political and religious symbols. They transmitted the Kongo elite’s redefinition of their realm as a modern Christian kingdom.

The sign of the cross, present in crucifixes, large wooden crosses in the landscape, or cross-forms cut into the hand-guards of swords, referred simultaneously to the newly introduced Christian iconography and to the older “crossroads” symbol that long before European contact represented the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead.


Kongo people

Lower Congo, DRC

19th century

Wood, brass

Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, HO.1955.9.13

On occasion, Kongo artists crafted rather unorthodox crucifixes. At first glance the object here seems merely to be an abstracted version of other crucifix figures. Closer examination reveals that the chest and torso are spangled with indentations. Is this indicative of a deliberate association between the Christ figure and a leopard, an important symbol of political and spiritual power usually associated with chiefs?

Figure of Saint Anthony

Kongo people

Lower Congo, DRC

17th–18th century

Copper alloy

Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, HO.1955.9.23

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries European missionaries introduced the cults of the Virgin Mary and Saint Anthony of Padua, which both became very popular. Local artists produced saint figurines in ivory, terracotta, brass and copper alloy. Figures of Saint Anthony were called Toni Malau and usually held the infant Jesus upright on the left hand, while the right hand held a cross. The saint figurines had a loop at the back so they could be worn as pendants. They were used as individual talismans and also for healing. They were brought in contact with wounded or aching parts of the body, which explains the worn surface of many of them.
Carved Elephant Tusk

Vili people

Loango, Congo-Brazzaville

19th century


Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, EO.1979.1.408

Carved by Kongo artists and intended for sale to Europeans, these carved elephant tusks illustrate the Kongo-European exchange. The procession-like reliefs read from the base to the summit. One way to view the effects of Kongo-European contact is through the different examples of clothing. The figures wear hats that resemble the embroidered mpu caps worn by Kongo chiefs. In addition, some figures sport European top hats and bowlers. Some men wear wrappers, but others adopt a range of European-influenced clothing, including jackets (with pockets) and long pants. The reliefs also include images referring to the slave trade.

Competition Among Chiefs

Kongo and its neighboring kingdoms to the north largely disintegrated in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and politics in the nineteenth century was the domain of local or regional chiefs. Chiefs controlled the trade in slaves and agricultural produce between the interior and the Atlantic coast. They organized trade caravans and made others pay a toll at strategic points they occupied along trade routes and rivers.

The power of chiefs depended on a range of factors including marital alliances with other groups, membership in therapeutic associations, and the acquisition of chiefly titles. The ritual investiture of a chief required the redistribution of considerable wealth, including various kinds of imported European wares. The competition for prestige led to a flourishing of the arts, as artists were pushed to innovate and provide high quality regalia and objects of daily use.

Ceremonial Knife

European, unknown manufacturer

Collected in Lower Congo, DRC

Late 19th century

Metal, silver

Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, EO.1977.33.1

Europeans made special presents to African merchants to gain favorable trade relationships. A remarkable example is this silver-plated ceremonial weapon, fashioned to resemble a Kongo ceremonial knife as they existed in wood, ivory and copper alloy. The object has a European style lion’s head at the end of the handle, and the inscription “Valle Azevedo & C°” referring to a Spanish-Portuguese trading firm operating in the region in the 1880s.
Sailing Ship Whistle

Kongo people

Loango Coast, Angola or Congo-Brazzaville

18th–19th century

Ivory, wood

Collection of Marc Felix, FX12 0032

Europeans visiting Kongo often commissioned artists to create specialty objects. This curious example of an ivory whistle shows hybrid characteristics that could result from such a commission. The whistle is a type and form that would have been used on sailing vessels to communicate orders. The foreign form suggests that the artist modeled his piece from a similar example, but then added his own artistic flare. Marc Felix has identified the figure’s clothing, consisting of a jacket and cravat, as the dress of an American captain from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. The figure’s earrings, however, are identical to those worn by the Kongo elites in the eighteenth century. The Kongo sculptor of this object has thus made a hybrid representation, clothing his figure in American dress while adding Kongo-style jewelry to indicate wealth and status.

Kongo in the Nineteenth Century

With the ending of the slave trade and the development of “legitimate” commerce came a relatively prosperous time in Kongo. Europe’s demand for raw materials such as palm oil and rubber gave African entrepreneurs access to a whole new range of imported luxury items. Such articles were accumulated by wealthy individuals and redistributed during the elaborate rituals of chiefly investiture or during the composition of charms (minkisi). They also served commemorative purposes and adorned the graves of chiefs and successful merchants. Political and economic competition favored the development of the arts and the production of objects that were innovative and of an exceptionally high quality.

The Nineteenth-Century “Legitimate Trade”

The Atlantic slave trade, begun in the sixteenth century, came to an end in 1866. By that time, Kongo communities along the Atlantic coast and the banks of the Congo and Chiloango Rivers had turned to the trade in palm oil and peanuts, and high-value commodities such as coffee, ivory and rubber. The 1870s saw the establishment of many new trading factories where the African produce was carried. Payment was made in cloth, earthenware, gunpowder, cutlery, guns, spirits and various other European luxury goods. During the first decades of legitimate trade, African entrepreneurs controlled the organization of production and to some extent also dictated the terms of trade.

Stoneware Pitcher Marked “AHV”

Presumably made in Germany

Collected in Lower Congo, DRC



Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, HO.1990.3.1

Stoneware Pitcher Marked “VA & C° Liverpool”

Presumably made in Germany

Collected in Lower Congo, DRC



Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, HO.1990.3.2

Among the European trade articles that were in high demand on the coasts of West Central Africa in the nineteenth century were gray stoneware pitchers and jenever [gin] bottles. The pitchers, nicely decorated with blue floral motifs, were made in Germany for trading firms with business in Africa. Some of these had their name marked on the outside: “AHV” was the Rotterdam-based Afrikaansche Handels Vereeniging, and “VA & C°” referred to the Spanish-Portuguese firm Valle, Azevedo and Company which had its head office in Liverpool. The pitchers were greatly appreciated by Bakongo for their ability to keep water or palm wine clean and fresh. They were also put on the graves of chiefs and successful merchants as signs of their status.

Jenever Bottle

Made in Germany

Collected in Lower Congo, DRC

Late 19th century


Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, HO.2002.27.2

European trading firms imported huge quantities of jenever or “Holland gin” in green or brown square glass bottles. The liquor was produced in Holland and in the north of Germany, and the bottles bore either the name of the distiller or the importer. The jenever bottle here bears the name of the distiller C.W. Herwig from Hamburg. Early twentieth-century observers found Kongo graves decorated with large quantities of jenever bottles and also smaller objects. The bottom of the white bowl decorated with green plant motifs was intentionally damaged. Cups and plates on Kongo graves were generally broken in order to “kill” them, so that they, too, could go to the land of the spirits.

Chief’s Cape

Woyo people

Cabinda, Angola

Late 19th century

Vegetal fiber, raffia

Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, EO.1979.1.308

Raffia was used to create items of everyday importance (basic clothing, baskets and mats). But, finer raffia materials were used to show the wealth and prestige of an individual. Finely woven, geometric textiles were displayed near Kongo kings and given as gifts to important visitors. Additionally, shawls such as this were a signal of prestige and part of a chief’s regalia. Such a vestment is depicted on a memorial bust of Ambassador Antonio Manuel who visited the Vatican in 1604.
Chief’s Headdress

Kongo people

Lower Congo, DRC

Early 20th century

Raffia, vegetal fiber

Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, EO.0.0.34448

While kings adopted European styles of dress early on, locally crafted caps remained important markers of status. Woven fiber caps called mpu were embellished with embroidery and pile techniques and featured geometric designs similar to those used for raffia textiles. Many mpu caps have symbolic additions such as leopard claws. Leopards are metaphorical of chief’s political and spiritual power. Chiefs were supposed to be powerful mediators between the world of the living and that of the ancestors.

Ceremonial Knife

Woyo people

Lower Congo, DRC

Late 19th century

Metal, wood

Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, EO.1952.15.11

In the coastal region of Ngoyo and Kakongo, the ultimate symbol of power of a ritually invested chief was the mbele a lulendo, “the knife of power,” also called kiphaba. With a copper or brass blade and the handle in wood or ivory, it was the sign of the chief’s power over life and death. In the nineteenth century, acts of violence were an important attribute of chiefship, at least symbolically, and this idea was frequently expressed in art.

Many such knives, however, were merely for ceremonial use, and sometimes they were made of wood or ivory. The motifs designed in the openwork or gouged into the blade include abstract representations of people, houses, plants and shells. They offered a visual vocabulary to the chief, who would interpret them with proverbs according to the rhetorical needs of the moment.

Ivory Scepter

Yombe people

Lower Congo, DRC

19th century

Ivory, resin, fat

Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, EO.0.0.43708

This effectively carved ivory scepter portrays a chief holding in his left hand a small tusk probably representing a scepter – a self-reference. In his right hand is a special root, known as munkwisa, the end of which the chief holds between his teeth. The munkwisa plant was thought to be indestructible and its root had a very acid taste. The specific pose of the chief is meant to underscore his exceptional strength and the longevity of his power. The secondary figure below is a bound and gagged victim of the chief’s violent intervention. The portrayal of violence was an important attribute of the chief’s power in the nineteenth century. The upper end may have held “medicines” turning the object into a sort of nkisi, or it may have held buffalo tail hair to serve as a flywhisk.

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