Art and Christianity in Central Africa

Tina Palaić

Christmas should be celebrated on 25 May instead of December. At least that is what members of the Kimbanguist Church believe – and also practice. Kimbanguism is a religious movement founded by Simon Kimbangu in the Belgian Congo in 1921. With several millions of believers, Kimbanguist Church is considered a branch of Christianity.


Simon Kimbangu interpreted the Bible and prophesied the end of the colonial order. Belgian colonialists accused him of encouraging racism, uncivil behavior and offending public order, as well as condemned him to death. However, he stayed in captivity until his death in 1951. Despite attempts to suppress the movement, Kimbanguism has survived. Kimbanguist Church fights against the polygamy, magic and witchcraft, as well as use of violence, alcohol and tobacco.


Kimbanguist Church is merely one of the consequences of the encounter of the Kongo peoples of the Central Africa with Christian religion. Small, but very exciting temporary exhibition at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, entitled ‘From the Jordan River to the Congo River: Art and Christianity in Central Africa’, tells us about the influences of 500 years of Christianization of the vast territory of today’s Gabon, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo. We can see how Christian iconography was interpreted and used by Kongo rulers and artists – many of the objects connected Christian imagery with the power. For instance, cruciform objects were used to legitimize the power of leaders, in judicial decisions, rainmaking, and as talismans to assure successful activities – traveling, hunting, and conception. 

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A copy of Santo Agostinho Padrão, stone pillar, erected by Portuguese Diogo Cão in 1482, when he reached the Kingdom of Congo.

Curator defines three evangelisation periods of Central Africa:

  • between the 15th and the 18th centuries: the Portuguese reached the Kingdom of Kongo in 1482 and remained the main European population (also the Dutch and the French occupied certain areas) in the area until the beginning of colonial era. The main reason for contacts was trading however, Portugal also supported different missionary orders to spread Christianity. The conversion of the Kingdom of Congo happened quickly – one of the reasons is that political leadership decided to embrace the new religion, as they saw it as a source of their greater political power. Conversion was mainly a ruling classes’ strategy to serve their political and religious ends, therefore it never eradicated local beliefs.
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Nkangi kiditu, a crucifix of the Congo chief, with secondary figures with joined hands. Crucifixes legitimized the power of their owners. 17th century.

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In the early years of the 18th century, a young Kongo princess named Kimpa Vita promoted a new form of Christianity. She began a religious and political movement, later called Antonianism. Sculptures like this one complement the role of Kimpa Vita in promoting the reunification and strengthening of the Kongo. 20th century.

  • colonial era: it reached its climax with the Berlin conference (1884-1885) when different Kongo groups became dependent on the Portuguese and French powers as well as on the Belgian crown. There are many objects on the exhibition showing Catholic-inspired art from this period. When the second period of evangelism began, of course in an alliance with the colonial order, there were more material, formal and linguistic than spiritual traces left after the initial wave of Christianity.
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Female necklace with crucifix, first quarter of the 20th century.

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Ntadi, funerary statue, with a cross around its neck and a hat with leopard claws, an attribute of a Chief. 20th century.

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Santu cross, eastern Kongo, late 19th-early 20th century. These crosses were used primarily to assure successful hunts.

  • from 1960, 1970 onwards: proliferation of new, so-called ‘revival churches’, was encouraged by the acute economic and political crisis in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. These churches seek to break with the past and tradition. One of them is Kimbanguist Church, introduced at the beginning of this text. There is one room of the exhibition dedicated only to this period which shows also Pierre Bodo’s artistic interpretations.
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Congolese painter Pierre Bodo (1953-2015), La Possession Demoniaque, 2000. Bodo served as a pastor of a Pentecostal church, which influenced his iconographic choices.

From my perspective, curator of the exhibition, Julien Volper, specialist curator for the Sub-Saharan Africa at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, very well emphasized the crucial point of the exhibition – the adaptation of Christianity to the particularities of local cultures.


Christian iconography and practices were not adapted unaltered. On the one hand, exhibited objects reflect the reinterpretation of Christian iconography by the local artists, and on the other, Catholic practices were transformed into a religious syncretism. As it is written on the museum’s website, we can understand Congolese cultural interpretation of  Catholicism as “one of the symbols of emancipation in the face of European domination”.


With revealing the aspects of agency of Kongo peoples when encountered with Christian religion, the curator enables us to question imperialist and racist elements of an evolutionary discourse, or of the so-called narrative of progress, which is still present nowadays. From my perspective, this exhibition succeeds in presenting how contacts between different religious as well as cultural concepts can result in something new, stimulate creativity and thus provide new perspectives on the world we live in. This is an extremely important message for today. Fortunately, for those of us, who do not understand French – only the main panels are translated in English – there is an exhibition catalogue available in both, French and English languages.

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Obviously, the exhibition also inspired a visitor, who drew this wonderful picture in a guest book.

Strolling through the exhibition, I was reminded of the very special experience I had while traveling / volunteering in Ghana with a very good friend of mine. We accidentally came across Christian church in the city of Tamale, and were invited to join the Holy Mass. They welcomed us very kindly, and we were asked to introduce ourselves. Afterwards we were invited to actively participate at the Mass. Their Holy Book surprised me the most – I am familiar with biblical parables quite well, however this book was very different. Stories were categorized within several chapters, namely health, family, love, strength, temptation … depending on their message. I tried to read a chapter about temptation, but my neighbor never stopped to show me the right page we were reading at the moment …

 

 

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