Congo has a bad reputation.
If the two countries sharing the name of Africa’s second- longest river, the (formerly French) Republic of the Congo and the (formerly Belgian) Democratic Republic of the Congo, pop up in the news, you can bet it’s about civil wars, refugees, abysmal poverty or shameless corruption.
“Fleuve Congo: Arts d’Afrique Centrale,” an exhibition at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, presents a more attractive image of that unfortunate region.
The Benedictine monk Francois Neyt, emeritus professor at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, and curator of the show, spent more than 20 years in Africa. He casts his net wide. Besides the two countries mentioned, he includes their neighbors -- Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and parts of Angola -- an area eight times the size of France, stretching from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes in East Africa.
The political frontiers and tribal wars notwithstanding, Neyt is convinced that the vast, outwardly fragmented region shares a common cultural heritage. As proof, he points to cross- border myths, therapeutic rituals, songs and dances.
He also emphasizes sculptures. The 170 pieces, on loan from Belgian and French museums as well as private collectors, are supposed to demonstrate the common roots of the art produced by the Fang in Gabon, the Luba in Katanga, the southernmost part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Chokwe in Angola.
Neyt exemplifies his theory with the help of three types of sculpture: masks in the shape of a heart, reliquaries with the bones of ancestors and “powerful women.”
The masks are used on various occasions -- initiation rites, circumcisions, necromantic ceremonies and dances. Some are white, others red or ochre. Some have a second pair of eyes, a symbol of prophetic vision. One, representing a sprite of the rain forest, has six eyes.
The guardian figures containing bones of ancestors serve more or less the same purpose as relics of Christian saints: They are believed to possess magical powers protecting against bad luck and evil forces. They come in a confusing variety of shapes; one has the face of a python.
A widespread feature is the diamond-shaped posture of the arms. The figures also are used as title deeds.
The third section is the least convincing. It’s true that the matrilineal transmission of power was the rule in the ancient kingdom of Kongo. Still, it’s hard to believe that “powerful women” with curvaceous bodies and elaborate hairstyles are specific to the Congo region.
Never mind. You can easily enjoy the exquisite beauty of the sculptures without buying into Father Francois’s theoretical edifice.
Just follow the example of Picasso, who was bowled over when he saw, in 1906, a statuette from the Congo region that his friend Matisse had bought at a curiosity shop on Rue de Rennes. A display case documents the craze for “art negre,” as it was then called, and how the Paris art market responded.
“Fleuve Congo: Arts d’Afrique Centrale,” which is sponsored by Total SA, is at the Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, through Oct. 3. Information: http://www.quaibranly.fr or +33-1-5661-7000.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Jorg von Uthmann in Paris at firstname.lastname@example.org.