Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 28, 2017
Cécile Fromont The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2014. 328 pp.; 37 color ills.; 89 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9781469618715)

Cécile Fromont’s The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo presents a gripping narrative of hybridity, change, and global encounter as European Christianity, the Atlantic world, and the Kongo kingdom met at the start of the sixteenth century and continued to interact directly with each other into the nineteenth century. The topic of Kongo conversion has been heavily debated for decades, resulting in a dichotomous split on just how influential and important Christianity was for both the kingdom and broader central Africa. Fromont presents a stimulating and provocative narrative, arguing the crucial place and lasting appeal Christianity had on the Kongo kingdom, albeit in Kongolese versions that were continuously revised and remade over centuries by elite Kongo stakeholders. In doing so, Fromont rejects commonly accepted histories of coercive European strategies of conversion, contending that the Kongolese themselves embraced the new world religion while demonstrating control and agency as elites forged their own distinctive, changing, and nuanced belief system—what Fromont terms Kongo Christianity.

In examining the cross-cultural interactions between central African and Europe, Fromont employs the notion of “spaces of correlation” as an analytic tool to grapple with the visual and material culture shaped by religious permutation resulting from such encounters. “Spaces of correlation” are defined as the creative expressions produced by individuals exposed to “ideas and forms belonging to radically different realms, [which] confront them, and eventually turn them into interrelated parts of a new system of thought and expression” (15). Fromont, like other scholars have done, took advantage of the abundant Kongo archival material—one of the foremost documented areas of Africa. In contrast to other researchers, she breaks new ground by offering analysis of art and visual culture as evidence for understanding Kongo Christianity. In doing so, her narrative does not unfold in a diachronic manner. Instead, her study is structured around a thematic analysis of artistic genres placed within a looser chronology.

In chapter 1, “Sangamentos: Performing the Advent of Kongo Christianity,” Fromont demonstrates the ways in which a Kongo Christian visual and performed discourse emerged through the purposeful fusion of correlative spaces between central African traditions and European Christianity. Central to her discussion is an analysis of a watercolor depicting a sangamentos performance, a longstanding type of Kongo war dance, and an ink drawing of a Kongo coat of arms, both of which prominently feature European-styled swords, a crucial ingredient in the recipe mixing notions of Kongo political power with that of Christianity. As early as the seventeenth century, sangamentos performances started to mix local and foreign ideas, dressing styles and weapons wielded by the warriors, in an effort to reenact the story of the second founding of the Kongo Kingdom. The mythic status surrounding the divinely inspired victory of king Afonso I Mvemba a Nzinga in 1509, as Fromont makes clear, is crucial for understanding how the “born-again” narrative laid the groundwork for the establishment of a Christened kingdom. The sangamento was modified to fit this history, providing a performative drama of Afonso’s victory over his brother and thereby converting the kingdom to Christianity (25).

In chapter 2, “Under the Sign of the Cross in the Kingdom of Kongo: Religious Conversion and Visual Correlation,” Fromont turns attention toward the Kongo Crucifix, a hybrid form merging the Christian cross with that of the preexisting Kongo cruciform. Because the cross-form was such a central visual symbol in both Kongo and Christian religious systems, Fromont argues that hybrid crucifixes demonstrated conversion not through coercion, but as “an independent process of cross-cultural inclusion and reinvention” (108). Central to her analysis is connecting the compositional and formal elements of the Kongo Crucifix to more long-standing qualities of Kongo artistic vernacular. For example, the halo located behind Christ’s head is often either in the shape of a rhombus or features diamond shapes, connecting directly, as Fromont argues, to renderings of the Kongo cruciform. Another example she mentions are the etched, textile-like borders encompassing Christ, which Fromont connects to the use of cloth during Kongo funerals, setting up a correlation between Christian and Kongo dogmatic notions of life and death. However, readers might question this argument as the majority of crucifixes illustrated in the book do not feature etched borders.

Chapter 3, “The Fabric of Power, Wealth, And Devotion: Clothing and Regalia of the Christian Kongo,” demonstrates how Kongo elites refashioned imported materials into elaborate ensembles, modifying existing forms of dress to fit within a shifting, more “Christened,” worldview. Fromont’s discussion includes an analysis of hats, specifically the Kongo Mpu cap, the incorporation of foreign cloth, and the aesthetic of sainthood and mestres staffs, as visual presentations that showcased a blending of Kongo and Christian sensibilities—not the replacement of the former with the latter. This is an important point persistently implied by Fromont. In the context of chapter 3, the author specifically addresses the newly reimagined regalia of the Kongo elite: it was the agency of nobles as a political strategy to blend local and foreign ideas and materials in an attempt to creatively maintain local autonomy through wealthy, prestigious, and powerful Christian-inspired visual display.

A particularly stimulating case Fromont discusses is the coronation dress of ruler Pedro IV Agua Rosada Nusamu a Mvemba (r. 1696–1718). His successful employment of a makeshift European hat featuring a coat of arms, suggestive of Saint James, was a visual strategy recalling the mythical story of how Afonso I originally ushered Christianity into the kingdom. Pedro IV’s witty hybrid coronation regalia effectively visualized his legitimacy as king, linking him to the mythic status of past Christian monarchs (127–28). At the end of the chapter, Fromont extends her discussion of Kongo dress beyond central Africa, offering a rereading of a body of images of Antonio Manuel created by European artists as a result of his diplomatic visits to Portugal, Spain, and Rome in the early 1600s. Fromont challenges the typical readings of this body of work as examples of misrepresentation, casting Africans in an archetypal savage-like role. Instead, she argues that these representations of Manuel in both central African and European dress illustrated Kongo agency and operated as “a revealing sign that the image of the Kongo Christian noble served at the time as the template for representations of African Christianity” (164).

Chapter 4, “Negotiating Time and Space: Architecture, Ritual, and Power in the Christian Kongo,” investigates the broader Kongo Christian landscape, specifically engaging the ways in which Kongo Christian churches, large-scale public crosses, and ritual and burial practices reflected a deep religious belief and commitment to those who embraced Christianity. With this chapter, Fromont moves beyond merely the political realm, arguing how Kongo Christianity was not just a mechanism of power, but an accepted and enduring religious system throughout the kingdom. Central to her argument is how Kongo notions of intersection between the living and the deceased were reconfigured and modified within a Christian visual discourse. Public crosses and churches, essentially operating as arenas honoring the deceased, “interchangeably symbolized the link between political legitimacy, devotion to the deceased, and Christianity, and they located the source of power in the nexus between the world of the living and the world of the dead” (184). A limitation to this argument lies in the lack of analysis of Kongo notions of intersection and views of the realm of the dead. By glossing over the role of the banganga, a Kongo ritual specialist in matters of linking the deceased to the living (176), a missed opportunity becomes apparent in detailing this specific correlative space within the interpretive tug-of-war readers experience in grappling with the push and pull of making sense of what is Christian or Kongo and what exactly are the practices and beliefs of Kongo Christianity.

In the last full-length chapter, “From Catholic Kingdom to the Heart of the Darkness: The Fate of Kongo Christianity in the Nineteenth Century,” Fromont addresses the vitality of Kongo Christianity in the face of colonialism and the former’s resilience into the early twentieth century. This chapter discusses how colonial narratives undermined the Christian identity of the Kongo, obfuscating its people and the region as backward and primitive. Despite colonial misrepresentation, Fromont argues, Christianity was not forgotten. Employing visual and material evidence, she demonstrates how “Christian objects continued to play a conspicuous role in political insignia and to serve as trusted intermediaries between the visible world and the invisible forces holding sway over them” (255). This chapter brings the narrative full circle, reinforcing that regardless of colonial rhetoric and intervention the agency of Kongo Christianity lived on into the nineteenth century.

Despite the limitations of an almost complete disregard of nonelites (an important gauge for determining religious influence), a tendency toward excessive formal analysis, brevity on Kongo cultural details, a focus on European rather than local Kongolese archives, and the lack of a bibliography, The Art of Conversion offers readers a well-written, keenly researched, beautifully illustrated, and penetrating narrative of the ways in which Kongo visual culture has for centuries been global yet remained Kongolese. The power of The Art of Conversion is its ability to effortlessly and convincingly tell a very complicated tale of global encounter, religious change, and cultural appropriation masterfully using an array of visual evidence. With this book, Fromont sets a new standard for research on premodern African art history.

Jordan A. Fenton
Assistant Professor of Art History, Department of Art, Miami University, Ohio