". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Kongo Mangaaka and -- Phoenician Hippoi

Maps, oliphants, raffia textiles, masks, crucifixes and nkisi.

Oliphants, still carved today in Kongo and Angola, were among the ornamental objects presented by the Mani-Kongo to European powers, including the Pope and the Medicis, as "business cards", initiating a relationship between them, himself and his kingdom for trade and mutual benefit.  Thus there are many of these found in public and private art collections from the Mediterranean up to the northern royal collections of Sweden and Denmark. Oliphants are still being carved in Angola and elsewhere. Nkisi are still being made there and in Cuba, at least. Power vessels containing power materials have been discovered by archeologists in Maryland, Virginia, and Louisiana.

The invitees were academics at the graduate level or museum / gallery people, most of which are also part of universities, such as both Yale and Princeton. However, el V was the only one in this company, including the Met curators of both this coming exhibit (September 2015) and the Met's African, Oceania and South American wing, to actually have been in Mbanza-Kongo.  As told when it happened, and almost didn't happen, it's very difficult to get into Angola.  The powers do not want outsiders.
Before the the early 19th century all surviving objects are nonrepresentational -- abstract and geometric -- whether sacred or ornamental. This break into respresentational occurs, presumably due to the change from European partnership with the region's rulers, to colonial invasion into the interior out of their long confinement on the coasts. Now there is direct conflict instead of trade, that includes the destruction of culture and folkways.

This is the era in which objects first appear, such as female wooden sculptures depicting the rulers' desire for population, particularly of men (recall, entire regions of Central Africa were depopulated by then by centuries already of the slavery industry, taken to everywhere in the New World).

A nkisi. Ritually prepared materials -- power packets -- would be secreted within the figure.
It's from the early 19th century as well that were created another variety of the nkisi power figures, mangaaka.  These were huge in size, taken and removed from nodes of mercantile communities.  These figures were, scholars speculate,

A mangaaka.  Very few of these large nkisi have survived.
the last line of defense of communities that had been barely surviving, subjected to intense stresses, such as loss of both population and trade, from colonial invasion by Portuguese, French and Belgians. The mangaaka have been ritually cleansed of their secret power packets somehow, before the European invaders and / or pirates seized them, and thus got into European collections.

Named hippoi by the Greeks, because of the horse heads at stem and stern.
So, it may be asked, how does one get from mangaaka to Phoenician hippoi? The Met currently has up for a while longer a special exhibit called "From Assyria to Iberia, the Dawn of the Classical Age."  Most of the objects are borrowed from other institutions and collections, which is why this is a "special" exhibit (with no photography allowed, not even cell phones).

After our session finished at noon, after the networking, and so on, we were given passes to the Met's galleries. El V and I had lunch in the museum restaurant, before going through the "Assyria to Iberia" galleries.  As usual, I am

struck by the refinement of the Assyrian artists, particularly in the cylinder seals. Each time I look at these objects I am more impressed by the Assyrians than the last time. Their visual imagination expresses a spirituality that we can't comprehend emotionally, yet is deeply striking: the human-beast composite figures of

Cylinder seal depicting a Mistress of Animals, surrounded by horned beasts.
guardianship and expressions of power. The griffons, and especially, the Masters and Mistresses of Animals.  What is that all about, really?  Their sacred tree?  There seems at least some deep influence of these figures and designs upon the Scythians, who show up quite a lot later.

We spent a long time looking at a panel that showed cargo being taken off a Phoenician hippoi ship.  Trade was much the focus of this exhibit. Just as with the coming Kongo exhibit -- many of the objects in that show are pieces sent to European princes (including the Medicis!) by the Mani-Kongo, who controlled the most extensive trading system on the continent, back in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

It was an emotional day, from the sense of tragic sadness and desperation felt in those sculptures of women cradling and nurturing -- not infants as the western eye always interprets initially -- but grown men, just made small, in the vain hope of repopulating the land.  While in the meantime, the women have been taken off to have their wombs forever repopulating the slave breeding and trading industry in the New World.  Then this joy in the exquisite refinement and achievement of what artists could create so very long ago, in the millennium before the ACE.

Not only is the detail exquisite -- in the round one can see each toe of the boy's foot -- it's also mysteriously, even tenderly, erotic. Note the placement of the lioness's paw around the boy's shoulders, holding his throat to her mouth ....
Yet, there too, the sense of tragedy.  A bit of ivory work that may perhaps be ranked by the world's art historians in these matters as the most perfect of ivory work in the world, surviving.  There was a matching ivory panel to this piece, but it could only be represented by a photograph, because it was looted from the Baghdad museum in 2003, never to be seen by the public or scholars again.

This ivory was from the elephant herds living in what we now call Syria. They were hunted to extinction long before ACE for the sake of their tusks, so what goes round, comes around?  We look at the ivory tusks from these elephants of the Middle East, all that survives of their DNA, and think again of the ornamental oliphants given to European princes by the Mani-Kongo, whose elephants too are nearly hunted to extinction for their ivory.

But what survives from a temple in the Phoenician port of Spal, which today we know as Seville, is gold. Gold has no dna ... nevermind . . . .

At that thought, our feet and backs couldn't take any more marble floors. We left to meet up with the people visiting NYC from North Carolina who wish to do some events around The American Slave Coast after publication. This includes the largest bookstore in the triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill), historical black college radio, and so on and so forth, and hopefully a gig or two presenting at one of the academic institutions which will finance this jaunt. While we were meeting, we were observed for long minutes by a drone garbed in Christmas lights, through le Café's large windows facing the street . . . .

After that we stopped in at the Grad Center's Christmas party, came home to eat rice and vegetables and read.

Somehow . . . it felt like the Christmas season had started.

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