When I became the Area Editor for Africa at the Grove Dictionary of Art in the early 1990s, I was surprised to find that the section devoted to “Religion” in the multipart survey article on the art of the continent was scheduled to have subsections on “Indigenous Religions,” “Islam,” and “Modern Developments” but none on “Christianity.” With a deadline looming, my attempts to commission a specialist author to fill the gap failed, so I had to cobble together an entry myself from the existing, scattered literature, devoting one of its seven paragraphs to the Kongo and their locally produced crucifixes and statues of saints (Coote 1996). Looking back on it now, it is difficult to understand how Christian works of art produced in Africa might have been omitted from this major survey, but on reflection it seems that even as late as the 1990s African Christian art was at best regarded as inauthentic and at worst dismissed for being associated with ignorant and iconoclastic missionaries (and ignorant and iconoclastic converts?) serving colonial regimes. No one would have regarded Coptic or Ethiopian Christian art in this way, of course, but sub-Saharan Christian art forms were widely regarded as not authentically African. Fortunately, Africanists today operate with broader conceptions of what is authentically African (and what is authentically art), and understanding of the importance of local agency in the reception and integration of global movements is much more sophisticated. Certainly art historian Cécile Fromont's understanding is.
In her excellent new book Fromont provides a detailed history of the Kongo kingdom from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. Drawing on limited but important archaeological findings, objects in museums and private collections, paintings, and manuscripts, and—for the later period—photographs, she explicates and explains the adoption of Catholicism by Kongo élite and the ramifications of this remarkable event for the material, spiritual, and political life of the kingdom—both internally and in its relations with the wider world. Fromont reminds us of the mutual respect that characterized Portuguese-Kongo relations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, traces the development of Kongo Christianity over time, and explains how the independent African kingdom succumbed to internal wars, the Atlantic slave trade, and—finally—the imposition of colonial rule. As far as possible, she tells the story from the inside, from the Kongo point of view and through Kongo works of art.
In recent years, scholarly understanding of Kongo art has been well served by the mounting of special exhibitions and the publication of important articles, books, and catalogues. Taken together, these have provided researchers with a truly remarkable corpus of new and newly researched material with which specialists can take forward and deepen scholarly understanding of the art, history, and culture of the kingdom and the wider region. Although many of these exhibitions and publications have featured examples of Kongo Christian art, however, the emphasis has tended to be on non-Christian forms. For example, both of the catalogues for the two most important recent exhibitions, “Kongo across the Waters” and “Kongo: Power and Majesty,”1 feature an image of an nkisi on the front cover and an image of a raffia textile on the endpapers. Readers of this journal know that there is much more to Kongo art than minkisi and raffia textiles, but until now no one has demonstrated for us the full richness of Kongo Christian art and of the resources that exist for studying it.
Fromont's focus is on the history of Kongo Christian visual culture, from its origins around 1500 through to its “unravelling” in the late nineteenth century as the kingdom was fully incorporated into the colonial system. Along the way, she illuminates the role of the Kongo élite in the political, religious, and commercial history of the Atlantic world. This is history from within; indeed, it is focused on how members of the Kongo élite used cultural forms and practices to combine and recast local and foreign ideas and forms into what we now call Kongo Christianity. As such The Art of Conversion is an essential read for anyone interested in the art of the Kongo, in the history of Central Africa more widely, and in the history of the Black Atlantic. As Fromont herself argues, given the importance of the Kongo presence in the Americas, “the corpus and history presented in this study now make possible the formulation of other, historically grounded arguments about cultural continuity and change across the Atlantic” (p. 12).
Early on (p. 17), Fromont explains that she will not be using “the language of postcolonial theory.” Setting aside Fernando Ortiz's “formulation of transculturation,” Homi Bhaba's “third space” and related notions of hybridty, and Mary Louise Pratt's “contact zones,” Fromont opts instead for “spaces of correlation,” an analytical tool apparently of her own coining, that she defines as cultural creations such as narratives, artworks, or performances that offer a yet unspecified domain in which their creators can bring together ideas and forms belonging to radically different realms, confront them, and eventually turn them into interrelated parts of a new system of thought and expression (p. 15).
Readers who have doubts about the value of analytical tools may be reassured that Fromont's introductory discussion of the concept is brief, and that although she returns to the language of “spaces of correlation” occasionally it does not dominate her text; indeed, she presents the rich results of her extensive research and careful analyses in more or less completely jargon-free language. With quite remarkable art-historical skills, she narrates, demonstrates, and illustrates how the Kongo élite and their artists and craftsmen adopted, incorporated, and manipulated local and imported concepts, forms, and ideas to create, explore, and develop a Kongo Christian world view. Keeping close to her materials—Kongo architecture, ceremonies, crucifixes, regalia, sartorial practices, and religious figures and European paintings and manuscripts—she serves her readers well, explicating her sources and setting out her analyses in clear prose.
Fromont provides richly illustrated accounts of such well-known Kongo forms as swords of status, crucifixes, statues of the Virgin and Saint Anthony. She also presents, analyzes, and interprets for us a range of texts and images from missionary manuscripts and other historical sources, as well as such well-known images as the 1629 bust of the Kongo ambassador António Manuel ne Vunda in the baptistry of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and the set of portraits (1637–1644) by Albert Eckhout of the ambassadors who travelled to Recife in Brazil in the early seventeenth century (one of which provides the image for the book's cover). From now on any attempt to deal with any of this material will have to take The Art of Conversion as its starting point. Along the way, Fromont also provides further food for thought about the historical and formal relationships between Christian art and such other Kongo forms as minkisi, as well as about the well-known Loango ivories of the second half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, one of the most sustained pieces of analysis is about a Loango ivory featuring a crucifixion scene (pp. 248–52).
The Art of Conversion is beautifully produced. Although the color images are gathered together in one set of plates, each is also reproduced in black and white at the appropriate place in the text, a very welcome service to the reader. Fromont's prose is clear throughout and there is barely a noticeable infelicity or typographical error to mar the text. Given the excellence of the product, it seems churlish to carp; however, I am not convinced by the practice of providing a single, multireference footnote for each paragraph. Although it is possible to work out which reference relates to which point, it makes for an oddly disconcerting reading experience.
Of course, given the extraordinary wealth of materials on which Fromont draws, including copious amounts of manuscripts in missionary archives, the footnotes are essential. I expect, however, that I will not be the only reader who would have appreciated the inclusion of a separate bibliography and guide to the resources used, the provision of which would have made the volume of even greater service to scholars. Perhaps Fromont's publishers might consider including such a guide in a paperback edition—along with a discussion of how she approached the problems involved in drawing on missionary and traveller accounts to write local history. Somewhat surprisingly, she does not discuss at any length the historiographical issues surrounding the use of missionary records to study indigenous beliefs and practices. Her claim (p. 19) that missionary images “conform to a well-defined and clearly stated agenda that make their biases and inaccuracies easily navigated” may be justifiable, but we would all benefit from a fuller account. Fromont's use of her sources is so convincing that it would be fascinating to learn more from her about how she approached and then set about using them. She has produced such a wonderful and important book from such a disparate body of primary and secondary materials that it would be a very welcome contribution to the development of the methodological and historiographical aspects of our discipline were she to tell us more about how she did it.
“Kongo across the Waters” opened at the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville in October 2013 and then toured; see Cooksey et al. (eds) 2013, see also Cooksey et al. 2013. “Kongo: Power and Majesty” opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in September 2015; see LaGamma et al. 2015, see also LaGamma 2015.