New Orleans’ Kongo Connection Explored In Exhibition at NOMA

By Dr. Sara Hollis

According to Bill Fagaly, African art curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art, the two most important facts about the current exhibition Kongo Across the Waters, are the connection to New Orleans illustrated in the collection and the fact that “these masterpieces of African art of the Kongo peoples will probably never be seen again outside Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren.

Organized by the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida at Gainesville and the Royal Museum, the exhibition strives to connect both sides of the Atlantic through back and forth influences. Walking through the exhibition is a journey through time and space. The earliest works in the first room are from the 16th through 18th century from the Kongo Kingdom. One sees influences of the first contacts with Europeans in that area. Through photos and videos throughout the exhibition, time and space are spanned. Many traditional Kongo objects, as well as objects echoing European art, artifacts and beliefs introduced into the area very early and over subsequent centuries, are displayed through the next rooms. The evolution of objects and styles of art and crafts, architecture and customs over time are interspersed with objects found in the Kongo diaspora, the West Indies, and especially the American South. Amazing comparisons in the exhibition of such items as baskets identical to Kongo creations still made today in the Sea Islands, canes and walking sticks with Congo images of animals, figures, and snakes from the Southern U.S.A. and the Caribbean, and dance and ritual portrayed in a video by Royce Osborne, showing dance, clothing and drumming customs being carried on right now, right here in New Orleans’ Congo Square. Besides featuring actual performances in Congo Square, there is an important interview with Freddi Williams Evans, author of Congo Square-African Roots in New Orleans in Osborne’s video which plays in one of the rooms in the exhibition.
The last room in the exhibition features works by contemporary African, Caribbean, and American artists harking back to African and Kongo roots in their works. Chosen for this summing up of the exhibition are artists Edouard Duval-Carrie (Haiti-Florida), Reneé Stout (American), Radcliffe Bailey (American) Jose’ Bedin (Cuban-American) and Steve Bandoma (Congolese). Several of these artists have been shown in recent years in New Orleans, Stout at the McKenna, Duval-Carrie at Stella Jones, and currently Radcliffe Bailey at the Contemporary Arts Center.

There are many examples of African, Caribbean, American objects that excite in the exhibition. The large Nkisi created for healing and intercession with the other world, the figures of the colonials created by Kongo artists to mark their visits, the wonderful walking sticks infused with memory from across the Atlantic, but the piece that really stunned me and seems to sum up the overall theme of the exhibition, Kongo Across the Waters, is Radcliffe Bailey’s huge painting of a large boat plying the troubled waters of the Atlantic carrying images of the creations of African artists representing their cultures crossing the Middle Passage. Every image is actually a representation of an object in the New Orleans Museum of Art’s permanent collection. As a representation of the ancient and rich cultures that African captives emanated from when taken from those cultures and transported here to be enslaved could not have been more dramatically represented.

This is an exhibition that can be appreciated by everyone. The New Orleans Museum of Art is open Tuesday through Sunday. Wednesdays are free to Louisiana residents. Friday night NOMA is open until 9:00 pm.

The catalog for the exhibition KONGO across the Waters by Susan Cooksey, Robin Poynor, and Hein Vanhee, is available in the New Orleans of Art Book/Gift shop. It is 458 pages, lavishly illustrated almost totally in full color and a number of essays on various aspects of the exhibition by noted scholars including Freddi Williams Evans.

There are a number of programs presented to accompany this exhibition. On April 17 at 6 p.m., there will be a lecture by Grey Gundaker of William and Mary College. On April 18, there will be a Reburial and Congo Square Celebration. There will also be lectures on May 15 by Matthew Stanard of Berry College and Sarah Van Beurden of Ohio State University and on May 22 with John Thornton of Boston University.

The Kongo Across the Waters exhibition will continue through May 25th at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Another opportunity to view African Art from the Congo, and Ceramics from all over Africa, is on display at Southern University at New Orleans in the Leonard S. Washington Memorial Library. The exhibition, Celebrating a Legacy, is curated by Erika Witt. The exhibition gives the SUNO family and the community an opportunity to view works from SUNO’s collections of African art through the eyes of a candidate in SUNO’s master’s of arts in museum studies program. The exhibition is on view through the summer semester.

Sara Hollis, Ph. D., is a professor in the Master of Arts in Museum Studies Program at Southern University at New Orleans. She can be reached at:

We Are Proud to Have Served Our Community for 38 Years. Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Providing a Trusted Voice. We Look Forward to 38 More!