Review: ‘Kongo: Power and Majesty’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Much art is made for pleasure or profit. Some is made to save lives and souls. The 15 sensational carved wood figures, standing like thorny trees in a grove, at the end of “Kongo: Power and Majesty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are examples of art of the rescuing kind. They are sculptural responses to a slow-motion emergency, one that shaped the history of the African continent and continues to resonate there today.
For centuries the West assumed that Africa had no history, because none had been found written down. Instead, it was said to be timeless in the way that the primitive was timeless: that is, retarded, suspended in backwardness. Call that a state of innocence; call it savagery. Either way, it was a condition to be patronized, corrected, exploited. Only beginning in the late 20thcentury, when the notion of primitivism came under widespread critical fire, were the antiquity and dynamism of African cultures acknowledged, and demonstrated in long-researched exhibitions like this one, which has been organized by Alisa LaGamma, the curator in charge of the department of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.