Several art exhibitions that opened at regional galleries prior to the holidays continue over the next several weeks, providing area residents with opportunities to fill eyes and minds with cultures, ideas, and color.
At the Princeton University Art Museum “Kongo Across the Waters” continues through Sunday, January 25. The exhibition visually describes a merging and clash of cultures and the painful history that ensued and continues today.
Kongo was the ancient central West African nation (now Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo). The accompanying phrase “Across the Waters” refers to the idea that at death the Kongolese travel across water to reunite with ancestors. The term also evokes the concept of physical distance and the ocean.
The span of the exhibition begins with the year 1483. That is when Portuguese navigators dropped anchor in the Congo estuary and “found this vast, politically organized, and artistically accomplished state,” notes the museum’s exhibit statement. “Their ships returned to Europe with Kongo raffia textiles, ivory horns, and members of the Kongo nobility as ambassadors, the beginning of an era of cross cultural interaction, first between Kongo and Europe and ultimately between Kongo, Europe, and the Americas.” The exhibit includes objects that demonstrate cultural mingling, illustrated by a series of crucifixes.
Even though the Kongo empire opened diplomatic, business, and cultural doors to the Europeans, “by the 17th century, the Kongo became a source of slaves for the international trade in human beings, sending approximately 4 million slaves from the Kongo area to plantations in the Americas. In the southern United States, Kongolese formed the largest single group of enslaved Africans and their presence left a distinctive mark on the development of American arts.”
The art objects that shape the exhibition’s narrative involve those of worldly and unworldly power.
The former were symbolic and dealt with references to power and authority, and museum texts note that “during the early years of Kongo engagement with Europe, the king and his court adorned themselves with emblems of their high position: ivory trumpets, raffia caps, and woven shawls. The resulting competition for prestige among chiefs led to artistic innovation, and demand increased for finely crafted regalia that symbolized and communicated power.”
The objects relating to unworldly power include an nkisi (minksi plural), described — despite an admission by the curators that it is difficult to translate — as “the container that holds a spirit from the land of the dead as well as medicines with spiritual powers.”
The minksi were created by artists who were free to sculpt the containers into animal or human figures or as an ordinary basket or bottle. It would then be “ritually activated” by an nganga (a type of priest or shaman) during a ceremony that included songs, drumming, and dancing. “This ritual clarified the purpose of the nkisi to the public, but the details of the bilongo were known only to the nganga, as every attachment, color, and form had meaning,” write the curators.
Several minksi — made of mainly wood and nails — are on view and include a grotesque humanoid figure used to hunt down thieves, witches, and adulterers; a human couple that inflict witches and thieves with diseases; and a dog that causes mental disorders and upper body diseases. The nails were used to infuse the figure with power.
The minksi provided the source of another clash between the Kongolese and the Europeans. Colonial authorities saw them as agents of political resistance and confiscated them (sending them to western museums). Christian missionaries and converts saw them as pagan and destroyed them. Yet others saw the figures as a way to maintain tradition and “turned to minksi to cope with the constraints of advancing colonialism.”
The artistic, religious, political, and musical links between Europe and the Kongo — as well as between Kongo and the Americas — left a legacy that continues to inspire the work of contemporary artists.
“By the River,” a 1997 mixed-media work by American artist Radcliffe Bailey, provides one example. The imposing work uses a blue altar-like frame that shows objects and images associated with African-American and Kongolese culture: the former prominently shown by an early 20th century photograph of a woman, the second by the artist depicting a dijkenga (a symbol of the Kongolese cosmology).
The exhibition also moves beyond the eye to sound, tracing the influence of Kongo culture on jazz music and dance and its continuing impact on American culture.
Kongo Across The Water, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton. Through, Sunday, January 25, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free. www.princetonartmuseum.org or 609-258-3788.
Nearby on the Princeton University campus at the Woodrow Wilson School’s Bernstein Gallery, contemporary artist Andrew Ellis Johnson’s exhibition “Call and Response” is on view through Thursday, January 29.
“Call and Response” combines two series of digital works. One reflects the convention of a miniature painting series, the other of large advertisements. Each, the artist notes, portrays the breakdown of communication, the rupture of cultural continuity, and the inaccessibility of both shared and remote experience, despite (or due to) technological advances.
The Pittsburgh-based Ellis says in a statement, “My work addresses the exigencies of daily realities and redresses the refined aesthetics of art. My practice is diverse in media, united by conceptual and tactical approaches that present subjects rather than objects. I strive for a cursory clarity that becomes complicated with circumspection, an initial seduction that leads into intractable situations. I aspire to an execution that is unassuming and transparent. I typically rely on the iconic, the familiar twisted and all the more recognizable for it.”
Ellis — raised in a family interested in jazz, history, and science — started using various media to create art at an early age. In addition to studying at the SUNY Buffalo and the Art Institute of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, and Skowhegan School of Painting in Maine, he attended the Poznan Academy of Art in Poland and worked in Europe and Asia.
Call and Response, Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. Through Thursday, January 29, Mondays to Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. wws.princeton.edu/bernstein.
The James Hutchins Gallery at the Lawrenceville School is hosting photographer Aubrey J. Kauffman’s exhibition “It’s Not About The Game,” on view through Friday, January 23.
Kauffman has been a longtime artistic presence in the central New Jersey region, exhibiting at Rider and New Jersey State Museum, serving as president of the Trenton Artists Workshop Association, the gallery curator of Mason Gross School for the Arts, and a U.S. 1 newspaper contributor (see story, page 14). He most recently coordinated the Rider University exhibition “Landscape: Social, Political, Tradition,” in which he stayed behind the scenes to present four other artists whom he admires.
For the Lawrenceville School exhibition, Kauffman says, “urban studies have long been a major part of my photographic practice. My work extends from abandoned urban structures and shopping malls to building facades, parks, and ball fields. In this series I have created images of several sites including basketball courts, stadiums, soccer and lacrosse fields. In all cases they are devoid of activity and human interaction. I am drawn to these unoccupied spaces because of the architecture and the visual interaction with the surrounding landscape. I am also intrigued by the vision that takes shape in my viewfinder. My interest lies not in the portrayal of teams, sports, or players but in the visual elements of where play takes place. For me, ‘It’s Not About The Game.’”
James Hutchins Gallery, Gruss Center of Visual, Lawrenceville School, 2500 Main Street Lawrenceville, through Friday, January 23, Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4:30 p.m., and Wednesdays and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to noon, Free. 609-896-0400.
The Trenton City Museum’s “SPLASH! Promising Watercolorists” is on view through Sunday, January 18. As museum curator Elise Mannella notes, the show is designed to illustrate the variety of approaches used in watercolor, a medium that ranges from the most watery translucence to an opaque consistency.
Mannella adds that “mediums like watercolor evoke a dreamy quality of quickly captured memories and impressions. The show’s intent is to illustrate the variety of approaches used in watercolor.” Fittingly the works by 25 artists from around the state and region range from clear objective rendering to subjective expression to exuberant abstraction.
For example, Doylestown-based artist Beth Schoenleber’s “Sky Chief” is a keen example of the objective, a strong rendering of a mundane object (a Sky Chief gas pump) in photographic clarity. Jersey City artist Deirdre Kennedy’s “Winter Magnolia” uses its inky painterly lines and gray tones to mix image and mood, and Bloomfield’s Isabella Pizzano’s “Sunstruck” blasts the eye with a blaze of shapes and hues.
Trenton region artist Robert Sakson — a member of the Pastel Society of America, Dolphin Fellow, and member of the American Watercolor Society, the Garden State Watercolor Society, Philadelphia Watercolor Society, and the New Jersey Watercolor Society — will preside over a gallery talk on the show’s final day, Sunday, January 18, at 2 p.m.
SPLASH! Promising Watercolorists, Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie. Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sundays 1 to 4 p.m., through Sunday, January 18. Free. 609-989-1191 or www.ellarslie.org.