According to Emily Braun, curator of the Burri retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (October 9, 2015–January 6, 2016), this painting (a collage of burlap sacks) was created in 1961 to commemorate thirteen Italian airmen murdered in the chaos of Congolese power struggles that followed independence from Belgium. This account can be traced to a review of an exhibit of Alberto Burri’s work at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in 1963. The massacre occurred in mid-November 1961 in Kindu, a town in South Kivu, an eastern province of DR Congo that sits just above copper-rich Katanga. ONUC, the United Nations Operation in Congo, sent the Italians there to deliver supplies to a unit of Malaysian troops. Congolese soldiers loyal to Antoine Gizenga, who supported Patrice Lumumba (assassinated on January 17, 1961 in Lubumbashi), apparently mistook the Italians for parachutists fighting with Moïse Tshombe, leader of the Katanga secession.
The pieces of burlap are arranged in quadrants to create a central cross. The patch on the lower right is stamped Congo Binga, the name of a plantation town on a tributary of the Congo River in Equateur Province, some 850km northwest of Kindu where the murders occurred. How ironic that a sack from a Congo plantation, the sort of workplace where millions of Africans had died at the hands of Belgian colonists, should be used to memorialize thirteen Italian pilots!
For a longer version see http://roape.net/2016/03/16/congo-binga-notes-on-burris-grande-sacco/
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.
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.