Meticulously researched, beautifully written, and lavishly illustrated, The Art of Conversion is one of the best books ever published about Central African religious history. Chief among Fromont’s methodological approaches are art history and archival historiography. She executes both with mastery, working comfortably across several languages. The author also expands the book’s horizons through a careful consideration of the relevant anthropological literature, which helps to inform her interpretative analyses of cultural artifacts from the Christian era of the Kingdom of the Kongo (1491–1891). Spanning the globe to study representations of such artifacts housed in an impressive array of archives, libraries, and museums, Fromont has left virtually no stone unturned to portray the era’s extraordinary visual culture. The end result is a top-rate piece of scholarship.
After the Portuguese introduced Christianity to West Central Africa toward the end of the fifteenth century, the Kingdom’s elites soon embraced the “new religion” enthusiastically. Fromont underscores that this embrace was not a side effect of colonial domination. The Kongolese were genuinely interested in Catholicism, and the Portuguese did not then colonize the region. The treasure trove of material discussed and depicted in the book includes imported and locally created crucifixes and clothing, rosaries and coins, ceremonial staffs and royal insignia, missionary watercolors, and battlefield regalia and weaponry. The book’s strongest interpretive offerings involve Fromont’s stimulating illumination of how the Kongolese worldview transformed contact-cultural religion in the Kingdom into a distinctive Central African Christianity, creating what Fromont suggestively calls throughout the manuscript its own “spaces of correlation.”
Regrettably, because most of the artifacts under analysis belonged to Kongolese elites who were deeply invested not only in Catholicism but also in their own political and social station, the reader is afforded little glimpse into the religious thought and practice of the Kingdom’s subaltern subjects. Although Christianity in the Kingdom of the Kongo evidently trickled down to the masses, the degree to which it did is difficult to measure, remaining the subject of some debate among historians. This deficiency, however, belongs to the archive, not to Fromont. The archive, after all, is in this case the product of one sovereign power acting to preserve the artifacts of another. That almost all of the material items considered by Fromont are today located in places like Brussels, Copenhagen, and New York, and not in Luanda or Kinshasa, serves only to accentuate this mettlesome postcolonial point.
The Art of Conversion demonstrates what careful and informed attention to visual culture in the anthropology and history of religion in general, and of African religion in particular, can accomplish. It is a compelling exemplification of the old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” especially when the discerning eye fully grasps a picture’s historical context.