The figurines in “Art of the Kongo: Power Figures,” a collection of totemic artifacts on display at Tambaran Gallery, are pointedly reflective of their rich historical significance. Originating in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo around the turn of the 20th century, each form is accompanied by a detailed background, recording its provenance and tribal uses.
In Tambaran’s sunny townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the artifacts are arranged on a series of pedestals and glass shelves. It is worth taking a 360° view of each figure, because in many, the most divine beauty lies in the smallest details. Some figures, like the Yombe Maternity Figure (ca. 19), which stands only slightly more than a foot tall, have diagrammatic etchings on their bodies, which contrast with the naturally polished wood.
These etchings resemble contemporary patterns of diamonds and other linear shapes, but they are in fact tribal scarifications, used in ritual adornment. Still, they feel fresh, echoing the recent work of artists such as Tauba Auerbach, who blends traditional pattern-making with new materials, or recently re-visited painter/illustrator Ray Yoshida, who uses the depth of a line to tell a story. One work, the Songye Kifwebe Mask (1st Quarter of the 20th Century), is more heavily etched than the others, and the abstraction of the facial expression—powerful, resolute—is conveyed almost entirely by these lines.
Other works, like the “Nsapo-Nsapo” Male and Female figure (ca. 19), bear blunt, more pronounced features. Eyes rendered in non-wood materials, like mirrored glass or beads, blaze from their wooden surroundings, following the viewer around the gallery. Other accidental details, like timeworn cracks, sometimes enhance the delicacy of these otherwise hard-edged carvings, like the subtle curve of a figure’s chin, or the slight and human protrusion of a belly.
Many of these figures were created to encourage fertility or protect against sorcery by those who carved them, and those uses may still be valid; undoubtedly their extraordinary beauty and ever-present modernity will encourage their contemporary collection for many generations to come.