Kongo Majesty, European Savagery

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan held an exhibition entitled, Kongo: Power and Majesty (September 18, 2015-January 3, 2016). The first gallery showed a selection of exquisite oliphants or trumpets, fine ivories expertly sculpted from elephant tusks in the sixteenth century.

Oliphant
via the Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2015/kongo/exhibition-galleries/gallery-one

Portuguese traders and missionaries acquired these masterpieces and brought them back to Europe. Two found their way into the Medici collection, inventoried in 1553 as “two ivory horns with engraved motifs”.

These sophisticated and sublimely beautiful oliphants are artifacts of a remarkable civilization, capable of an artistry that was subtle, intricate and inventive. Europeans saw something else. The exhibition label notes that “non-European objects were of interest primarily for their marvelous materials and as evidence of manufacturing skills”. Why were the Africans who created these instruments not honored as contemporaries of Michelangelo? Why didn’t Europeans regard the Kongo civilization as comparable to the Renaissance? Why did they reduce Africans to raw human labor?

Having just finished writing a book, Gender and the Political Economy of Conflict in Africa: The persistence of violence, in which I traced the history of slavery in the Congo, I knew that the Portuguese had inaugurated the transatlantic slave trade. I also knew the legacy of that trade, which was the largest forced migration in world history. The slave trade severely disrupted and reshaped African societies for a millennium, robbing African households of millions of young women, men and children. Slavery and the slave trades — across the Sahara, over the Atlantic Ocean and beyond the Indian Ocean — changed everyone in Africa: they affected kinship and community across generations, social relations of gender and work, sex and status, procreation and demography, hierarchy and stratification.

The Portuguese destroyed the Kongo kingdom; by the end of the seventeenth century it had fallen apart, disintegrating into its several provincial parts and sliding into civil conflict.

© Meredeth Turshen 2/3/2016

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