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Kongo across the waters: The connection of Africa to New Orleans

One of the pieces from NOMA's 'Kongo Across the Waters' exhibition, “Memory jars” were a Kongo-inspired art form, typically created to honor the dead. Decorated with bits and pieces from possessions of the deceased, these jars were often used as grave-markers. (Photo: American, Memory jar, 20th century, High Museum of Art)

One of the pieces from NOMA's 'Kongo Across the Waters' exhibition,
“Memory jars” were a Kongo-inspired art form, typically created to honor the dead. Decorated with bits and pieces from possessions of the deceased, these jars were often used as grave-markers. (Photo: American, Memory jar, 20th century, High Museum of Art)

Kongo Across the Waters, an exhibition currently at the New Orleans Museum of Art, explores the connections between the art and civilization of the African Kongo people with that of African American art and culture in the United States.

History informs us that the first African in America landed on the shores of Florida 500 years ago.

“In 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon sailed to the coast of Florida, explains Robin Poyner, professor of art history at the University of Florida and co-curator of Kongo Across the Water. “On his ship was at least one free African conquistador, named Juan Garrido. I wanted to celebrate the 500 years of African presence in the Sunshine State and point out that when Europeans stepped onto the soil of North America, Africans did as well.”

But with a subject that broad, the challenge was how to narrow the focus. In discussions with colleagues, Poyner says the decision was made to focus solely on the art of one location: the Kongo region of Central Africa. Another decision was to ensure that the exhibition would to come to New Orleans, the city where other Africans from the Kongo Kingdom were brought much against their will. Despite their enslaved state, they managed to sustain the artistic and cultural traditions of their country while deeply influencing the evolution of the culture of the New World.

For Bill Fagaly, the Francoise Billon Richardson curator of African art at the New Orleans Museum of Art, Kongo Across the Waters is an opportunity for NOMA visitors to view some 160 rarely seen works in this exhibition organized by the Ham Museum of Art of the University of Florida and the Royal Museum for Central America in Tervuren, Belgium

“Many of these extraordinary works have rarely, if ever, traveled from the Royal Museum in Belgium to other museums,” Bill says.

The exhibition, which will remain in New Orleans through May, 2015, will be accompanied by numerous lectures, symposia and educational programs. The following will all take place at NOMA in March:

Lecture: March 13, 6 p.m. with co-curators of Kongo Across the Waters Susan Cooksey and Robin Poyner of the Ham Museum of Art at the University of Florida.

Symposium: March 14, 12:30 - 5 p.m. In coordination with the University of New Orleans, local scholars and  students will gather of discuss new approaches to the long history of connections between New Orleans and Central Africa.

For more information on other events during April and May visit www.noma.org or call 504-658-4100.

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]