The catalogue Kongo across the Waters accompanied an exhibition at the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in 2013, which traveled to three other museums in the US. The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, joined with the Harn to realize these projects. Complementing the Viva Florida 500 program, celebrating 500 years of European presence in Florida in 2013, the catalogue and the travelling exhibition claim to mark a milestone in the history of African presence in North America, for with the first Europeans, the first Africans also arrived. The book sets off discussing the biographies of two African crew members of the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon who came ashore on La Florida in 1513. It is emphasized that these Africans were free men, as opposed to many of the people following in their footsteps, and may well have been Kongo. Of course, the Kongo kingdom is well historicized in Euro-African relations and its coast became a major hub for the transatlantic trade in humans; approximately one fourth of Africans exported to the US came from the Kongo. This caused Kongo culture to leave a considerable imprint on American traditions.
The catalogue deals in an extensive way with Kongo history, culture, and arts, not only in its region of origin at the West-Central African coast, but also with Kongo heritage brought to the Americas from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. The content is divided into three parts: “Kongo in Africa,” “Kongo in the Americas,” and “Kongo in Contemporary Art.” The catalogue offers a very broad view on Kongo heritage, but the essays are of varying quality and depth; some are written by researchers who spent a lifetime investigating aspects of Kongo culture, while others who are less familiar with the region treat their subject more distantly.
The first essays treat the history and culture of the royal court at the capital Mbanza Kongo (in Angola) between the fifteenth and nineteenth century. Special attention is devoted to the unique diplomatic relations between Kongo and Portuguese royal houses, stressing a period of equality and exchange of both visitors and valuable gifts between royal houses. European influences and the special role of early European missionaries in Kongo society impacted spiritual life and resulted in a syncretic culture reflected in ritual objects and in nobles' regalia, such as the well-known crucifixes and the mbele a lulendo daggers. These were locally produced yet modelled after European objects and took on specific local meanings and uses. The scope is gradually enlarged from the elite culture to include some aspects of wider society, focusing especially on spiritual life embodied in minkisi and on revivalism in Kongo religion, in which therapeutic cults such as lemba and life-cycle rituals such as khimba played an important role to remedy social change, prevent crisis, and reinvigorate the universe. The trade of enslaved people is contextualized against its economic impetus and is connected to the heights and crises of the Kongo kingdom over time. The rise and abolition of the Atlantic trade from the Loango coast between the seventeenth and nineteenth century is treated, including details on numbers, age, gender, and origins of the enslaved and causes of enslavement. Attention is paid to particularities of the journey across the ocean and life histories of freed slaves.
The catalogue's second part, “Kongo in the Americas,” is predominantly built up around material and visual continuities, but some attention is also paid to linguistic, musical, and culinary influences. Kongo's influence is located within several kinds of objects, either archaeological or folk, but also in sites such as graveyards, home yards, and other landscapes. Within home yard and landscape art this link may be mostly associative, but for many objects the Kongo accordance is very substantial. In the first part of the catalogue this became clear by comparing commemorative canes with Loango carved ivory tusks and Kongo wooden staffs. In the second part of the catalogue such links become the major focus, but different kinds of objects or sites are analyzed. The archaeological research deserves special mention. In this part's first essay, Christopher Fennel writes that African-American archaeology knew a “period of great vitality” (p. 229) the fruits of which are presented in the exhibition and catalogue. One of the core symbols of Kongo religion reappearing in artifacts of black America is the Kongo cosmological diagram. It is used as a marking on what is known as colonoware, a pottery which was made and used on plantations and used as sacrificial pots that were thrown into the water at river sites. The diagram is also reflected in symbolic configurations of spaces and material agents placed in them, such as in Brice House in Annapolis, Maryland. Kathryn Deeley, Stefan Woehlke, Mark Leone, and Matthew Ccohran write: “The site was clandestinely transformed into an African American safe space through the practice of depositing materials under the brick floor, creating a cosmogram similar to those in the Kongo dikenga tradition” (p. 242). Such finds underscore intimate spiritual histories of affect, reflecting people's mindset and actions as they sought protection and wellbeing.
The final part of the catalogue, “Kongo in Contemporary Arts,” starts with an essay giving a cross-cultural survey of artists—black Americans, Africans, and Europeans—inspired by Kongo culture. Subsequent chapters deal with the oeuvres of individual artists, explaining how each of these adopted Kongo heritage, alongside other inspirations, in their works: the Cuban-American José Bédia, the Haïtian Edouard Duval-Carrié, the Americans Renée Stout and Radcliffe Bailey, and the Congolese Steve Bandoma. The American artists are “modern religious artists” whose work combines artistic and ritual practice, analogous to the arts in Kongo society. The artists as conjurers constitute their art works as power objects, in a similar way to Kongo minkisi. Many works reflect a personal search for the artists's roots through the recollection of individual and family histories, with a communal project reconstituting black American history and legacies, going back and forth between conscious retrievals of the ancestral religion and vernacular renditions of it in Afro-American culture. Steve Bandoma, on the other hand, reconfigures minkisi to fit his vision of contemporary Congolese culture, to vent social critiques on the influence of Western media and consumer culture.
As noted, the book is divided into three parts with a total of twenty-six chapters. Seventeen chapters have a “focus” section that considers one object or a set of them more closely. Further, the book has seven catalogue sections. This complex structure makes the catalogue seem fragmented, because it is not chronologic. Perhaps the subdivisions could have been better integrated, and thus better synthesized on the whole. This being said, the catalogue's merits are numerous. Rather than simply adding to the well-known literature on Kongo culture, this book devoted attention to a very wide range of objects, not only minkisi, ivory carvings, crucifixes, and grave sculptures, but equally to ephemeral and nonelite art forms, such as engraved calabashes, rock arts, basketry, and yard decorations. The focus sections provide more background data than a regular catalogue entry would and are much appreciated even though they complicate the book's structure. The abundant color illustrations of objects and material culture, which are exceptionally well documented, give the reader a more vivid and versatile impression of Kongo culture and history. Finally, but most importantly, the section on Kongo influences in the US appears the most impressive for it does justice to the introduction's ambition: “to mark a milestone in the history of African presence in North America” (p. 1). The way in which this legacy is rendered tangible by focusing on material culture, mostly in folk and contemporary art, but particularly in archaeological finds from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sheds light on the lives of Americans whose ancestors came from the Kongo. This is an important contribution.