Providing a history of structured systems of visual expression in both Central Africa and Cuba, Kongo Graphic Writing and Other Narratives of the Sign nuances our understanding of graphic communication as a cultural illustration and demonstrates a link between Bakongo culture in Central Africa and an Afro-Cuban religion, Palo Monte. This in-depth analysis addresses the still too-commonly held assumption that, apart from Egyptian hieroglyphs and Coptic writings, Africa lacks graphic writing systems. This work is greatly enhanced by the plethora of figures, the documentation of the rupestrian art (art done on rock or cave walls) in Lower Congo, contemporary Kongo bidimbu (symbols) and bisinsu (codes) and Palo Monte's firmas (signatures). In addition, it has already been translated into Spanish (El Colegio de Mexico Press, 2012), which ensures its potential to reach a broader audience and begin to bridge some of the disparities between diaspora studies.
A Palo Monte practitioner himself, Marténez-Ruiz draws upon a lifetime of experience, which he combines with his service in Angola with the Cuban army, to inform fieldwork. This closeness to Palo Monte, he recognizes, has shaped his interpretation of the material, but has also granted a degree of access. Marténez-Ruiz carefully balances his status as a practitioner and his position as a researcher. He uses his position to facilitate discussion with other Palo Monte priests, but he has not lost focus in his main goal of gathering information. The result of this well-researched work is a comprehensive analysis of the history of Kongo and Palo Monte systems of writing.
The scope of Kongo Graphic Writing alone is impressive, covering the Kongo Kingdom to the present-day. In the first three chapters, Marténez-Ruiz provides the necessary background and contextual information. He situates this work among its predecessors and establishes the need for a work on Kongo graphic systems and the necessity for connection between Africa-based studies and diaspora studies. Chapter 1 finishes with a discussion of methodology and situates the author, describing his own background and possible biases. The second chapter is an overview of historical information. It establishes the meaning and use of the descriptor “Kongo,” including the history of the Kongo Kingdom and its part in the Atlantic slave trade and enslaved communities in Cuba. The third chapter examines cosmology (study of life's origin), cosmogony (study of god and the human condition), and mythology (history of a people told through a collection of stories and characters that preserve collective memory) as they exist today in both Kongo and Cuba.
Chapters 4 and 5 address the written symbols, religious objects, oral traditions, and body language that comprise the graphic systems. Marténez-Ruiz's method largely builds upon Gerhard Kubic's (1986) definition of graphic systems as visual communication systems comprising graphemes (the smallest meaningful units) and illustrates the three aspects of Kongo graphic writing: ideograms, pictograms, and cosmograms (p. 47). Chapter 4, containing almost half of the text, gives an in-depth review of Kongo bidimbu and bisinsu and Palo Monte firmas. Several nicely illustrated tables enhance this chapter and address the origins and continued significance of Kongo graphic writing systems. Marténez-Ruiz begins by analyzing rupestrian art, including several previously unpublished examples. Similarities among various sites show continuity of expression across geographic and chronological variations. Here, he introduces the concepts he uses to interpret the symbols by discussing Kongo dikenga and Cuban nkuyu (both cosmograms imbedded with complex meaning), and the process by which dikenga traveled to become nkuyu in Cuba.
Marténez-Ruiz connects the meaning of the rupestrian designs to the idea of dikenga, and to contemporary proverbs, myths, and uses of the designs. The chapter then looks at contemporary uses of graphic writing systems in both Kongo secular and religious settings and in Palo Monte's firmas. Firmas are not separated between religious and secular uses. They can break down the various components; each element can then be read and used to build the final total meaning. Chapter 5 goes beyond interpreting two-dimensional forms of writing to discuss the meaning of three-dimensional Kongo minkisi, Palo Monte prendas, and mambo chants performed during Palo Monte practice. The exploration of these forms emphasizes the importance of not just writing, but in a whole vocabulary of visual expression.
Martéonez-Ruiz uses a variety of material to illustrate his discussions—from documenting the rupestrian designs, to interviews with Mbanza Kongo residents, Mbanza Kongo priests, and several Palo Monte priests. Meticulous tables and figures help to cement an undeniable aesthetic connection over several hundred years of graphic writing. However, as stated in the introduction, this is more than just an aesthetic continuity: “These systems are used to organize daily life, enable interactions between humans and the natural and spiritual worlds, and preserve and transmit cosmological and cosmogonical belief systems” (p. 1). In arguing for the religious continuity, it is evident that Marténez-Ruiz is building upon the work of his mentor, Robert Farris Thompson.
Marténez-Ruiz uses a sizable portion of this book to discuss aspects of Kongo society, illustrating that this work is not just about how Kongo's realm reaches across an ocean, but it also expands the overall understanding of this complex culture. Through his field interviews and exploration of the symbols’ meanings, Marténez-Ruiz builds upon previous discussions between Fu-Kiau kia Bunseki and Thompson about the visual expressions of Kongo cosmology, specifically the idea of dikenga. While Marténez-Ruiz devotes several pages to describe and interpret the dikenga's visual and religious elements, the bulk of his discussion expands this notion. The dikenga, while a useful tool for interpreting elements of Kongo cosmology, is not the only way to visualize Bakongo beliefs. Kongo culture employs a large system of visual representations to express complicated ideas concerning interactions with the spirits, ancestors, and humans’ space within the cosmological realm. This book, therefore, complicates the way that we read other Kongo visual representations. This is especially evident in his final chapter, which uses the analytical parameters presented in Chapter 4 to read various elements of minkisi, prendas, and mambos.
Marténez-Ruiz effectively organizes his discussion around objects and performances with clear religious importance. His assertion that we can see the continuity of belief and expression over several hundreds of years is convincing because of the objects he chooses. However, in applying his methods to other Kongo and Kongo-diaspora objects, we must also take into account the possibility of cultural modification and change. While these new tools for reading objects may be extremely useful, scholars must also consider that artists may have created objects that have complicated meanings and express more than just cosmological worldviews.
Kongo Graphic Writing and Other Narratives of the Sign is well timed within the relative explosion of Kongo and Kongo-diaspora related scholarship. It is certainly an exciting time to be studying Kongo culture, with Cécile Fromont's The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo (University of North Carolina Press, 2014), and Susan Cooksey et al.'s Kongo across the Waters publication and exhibition (University of Florida Press, 2013), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 2015 exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty. Each of these projects contributes to expanding the complexity of how we understand Kongo culture. Marténez-Ruiz's argument expands our understating of Kongo and Kongo-diaspora visual culture. Emphasizing the importance of fully reading an object's cultural context ensures that these objects will continue to play an important role in the emerging dialogues.