Artists are storytellers. In their work, they often tell us stories about their own lives or the lives of the people or communities they depict. Their creations can capture a moment in time or make a human connection in ways that history books alone cannot, allowing us to better understand the heart and soul of a people. Standing before a work of art, a viewer can choose to regard history and art as either mutually exclusive or mutually enhancing. Those who choose the latter understand art’s power. In a relatable and often visceral way, art—whether a handmade object, performance, literary work, or musical composition—can remind us of our common humanity, express universal aspirations and concerns, evoke empathy, and enhance one’s understanding of history and culture.
Currently at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the exhibition Congo Masks: Masterpieces from Central Africa presents the rich ancestry and artistry of the vast Congolese region and its people. On view in the United States for the first time ever, the exhibition showcases 130 masks, full-body ensembles, and musical instruments. Its immersive content transports the visitor with a multimedia experience that includes the sights and sounds of the Congo region. Arranged in a winding display that mimics the 3,000-mile-long Congo River, these aesthetically impressive objects are also living representations of the people who created them and used them in ceremonies, rituals, and entertainment. The exhibition is a unique opportunity to see these treasured creations up close and in full view, often without the barrier of glass cases.
Congo Masks offers a comparative study of the vast region’s artistic styles, cultures, and even its ecosystems. Visitors who come with some knowledge of the region’s past will find greater meaning and poignancy in the exhibition. And for some, the experience is a deeply personal and rare chance for recognition and representation.
Only some of the visitors from ReEstablish Richmond upon entering the Congo Masks exhibition
Perhaps that is why ReEstablish Richmond, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrant families settle in the area while respecting their cultural ties to the places they left behind, brought a group of Congolese families to VMFA on January 21 to see Congo Masks. The group totaling around 70 individuals delighted in the experience of seeing a major exhibition about their traditions and cultures so far away from the places they still call home. For most, the visit was a first to VMFA.
VMFA visitors from ReEstablish Richmond
If you haven’t seen the exhibition yet or if you’d like to revisit, there is still time before it closes February 24. Also for a deeper cultural dive, two exciting events inspired by the Congo Masks exhibition are taking place Friday, February 1:
First Friday with David Noyes, host of Ambiance Congo WRIR
Fri, Feb 1
Free, no tickets required
Enjoy a special extended First Friday program for a selection of the best of Congolese popular music. From the 1950s to the 21st century, Congolese music is the most widely distributed and music throughout the African continent. It’s also appreciated worldwide—from Western Europe to Japan, Colombia, and the Caribbean.
Talk: Masking Traditions of the Congo
with Dr. Manuel Jordán, Deputy Director and Chief Curator, Curator for Africa, Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix, AZ
Fri, Feb 1
Leslie Cheek Theater
$8 ($5 VMFA members)
Dr. Manuel Jordán, a specialist on the Chokwe-Lunda cluster of peoples, will discuss masking traditions from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
On view at VMFA through February 24, Congo Masks: Masterpieces from Central Africa is organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in partnership with the Congo Basin Art History Research Center and Tribal Arts, S.P.R.L., Brussels, Belgium, and Ethnic Art and Culture Limited, Hong Kong. The exhibition program at VMFA is supported by the Julia Louise Reynolds Fund.
Presented by Dominion Energy