by Cécile Fromont. University of North Carolina Press, December 2014. 352 p. ill. ISBN 9781469618715 (cl.), $45.00.
Reviewed May 2015
Deirdre D. Spencer, Librarian for the History of Art, University of Michigan Library, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cécile Fromont of the University of Chicago, and formerly the Michigan Society of Fellows has authored an impressive, ground-breaking work that foregrounds lines of inquiry about West African history and its Portuguese relations, through seldom-seen works of art. Her book is the culmination of extensive research and scholarship on the ritual and visual culture of the Congo and its adoption of Catholicism from the early modern era of 1500-1800, and concluding with the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, where European governments determined how Africa would be colonized, commercialized, and governed.
In spite of pseudo-scientific racism and the denigration of Africa by European powers, Fromont argues successfully that the Kingdom of Congo was a legitimate Christian polity prior to 1500. Through visual and textual evidence she demonstrates that Congo was represented diplomatically at the court of Portugal and recognized in Europe as a Christian entity. The author also provides insight into the world of the Congo elites who established the ways in which Christianity would be adopted and merged with indigenous religious practice. These elites also negotiated aspects of the slave trade, advocating against the decimation of their population.
Fromont carefully negotiates the complexities and nuances of colonial, political, and economic relations (including the Atlantic slave trade) and the merging of Christian and Congolese religion, culture, ritual, and iconography to create a new entity within the world of Christendom.
This book is lavishly illustrated with high-quality images of works that have never been published, compiled from archives and museums across the world. Fromont's analysis does not replicate pre-existing material but rather enhances it with works of art which speak to a visual interpretation of West-African history merged with that of Europe.
The audience for this volume is the advanced-level scholar and researcher. Readers who do not possess a background in African history and culture may find the frequent use of Congolese and Portuguese terminology a bit challenging; however, the effort is well worth it. A useful index is located at the end of the book. This monograph is important for academic libraries to own. It represents the sophistication of a central African culture during the early modern period and contains a body of historically significant visual material that was never previously published and is now conveniently accessible within this volume. Additionally, African diasporic and Latin American art history are rapidly emerging areas of scholarship and this monograph is a crucial part of that discourse.