The Roots of Empathy: Loango Perspectives on the Heart of Darkness

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 2:50 PM
Room 104 (Hynes Convention Center)
Paul Dambowic , Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY
The evidence of several dozen ivory tusks, several works of colonialistliterature, as well as photographic and epistolary evidence from the Elisofon archives at the Smithsonian, provide a multiple perspective on cross-cultural contacts of the late 19th century in West Africa. Several local African workshops are responsible for the Loango ivories produced from the 1860s to the 1890s for traders in the Kongo region. These have been little studied, due to their syncretic and touristic sources, yet they are astoundingly beautiful. They also provide a counter-memory to European impressions of the trade in slaves and ivory during the late 19thcentury. One of the Loango works, on view at the Metropolitan Museum, is a small segment of tusk with two registers: the upper register depicts stylishly dressed European traders standing around, bargaining for some birds, making small talk; the lower register shows the effects on African workers; the punishments inherent in forced labor; and in one personage, an African Jesus in a scene referring to the iconography of the Crucifixion. These works are a visual display of the appeal to empathy that led to anti-imperialist writings of the late 19th and early 20th century, when they were shown first in Western collections. While many of the ivories were commissioned by Europeans, many are independent works; others show African figures and narrative scenes from the local point of view. Such scenes, though created somewhat earlier in time, closely parallel those of European authors, like the rows of African workers chained at the neck, inscribed on the ivories and described in the first part of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”