Banataba: The Interrogation of a MET Collection
On the second weekend of September in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s transplanted sixteenth century Spanish Velez Blanco Patio, Faustin Linyekula revealed his very personal journey through the MET’s Kingdom of Kongo collection, which eventually led him back to his ancestral village in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Congolese choreographer and performance artist was invited to take part in the MET Live Arts program in collaboration with the French Institute Alliance Française as a part of the 2017 Crossing the Line Festival. Described by Frieze magazine as “quite possibly the most important artist working on the African continent today”, Linyekula is known for tackling the issues of political turmoil and the complex history of the Democratic Republic of Congo through a combination of storytelling and movement. In a world where museums are fighting to stay politically correct by silencing critics, Banataba shows that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is embracing dialogue through performance.
Linyekula’s performance began with a projected video, a gathering of people singing and dancing that slowly evolved into boat motoring down a wide-mouthed river. As the video finished, Linyekula and his partner Moya Michael entered the patio, progressing across the floor with a bundle wrapped in twine. Linyekula sang the word “banataba” as they moved across the courtyard alternating the weight of the bundle. When it was unwrapped, a collection of wooden pieces were revealed that Linyekula and Michael began to make noise and dance with; the wooden clangs echoed hollowly throughout the patio.
Linyekula then began to speak. His magnificent voice was neither forced or insincere.
He described the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo as a broken one, a history that wasn’t a “written history” until the Europeans arrived in the region. To that end he introduced his investigation of the MET’s Kingdom of Kongo collection, finding one sculpture in particular that spoke to him. This was a Lengola statue, a work of art made by his maternal ancestors. This statue has never been displayed and sits in storage and Linyekula did not shy away from acknowledging the irony of this sculpture’s inaccessibility. He proceeded by personifying the sculpture and in a quest to understand his connection to this piece of wood, he traveled to the place where this statue and his ancestors came from.
A a part of Linyekula’s journey back home, he sought a mate for the MET’s Lengola statue. He didn’t want it to be cold and alone in storage. After securing a mate he came to the conclusion that it would be wrong to bring another Congolese statue out of his country and to a western museum and as it turns out, he was not even able to have it incorporated into the MET’s collection immediately because of the intensely bureaucratic acquisition process. Instead, his solution was to commision a wooden statue that would be used in his performance, and therefore could be acquired by the MET as a prop used in a MET Live Arts performance.
Linyekula and Michael slowly began assembling the pieces of wood they had brought into the space as a simple bundle until there stood a large Lengola statue. The mysterious wood had a purpose and would eventually end up in the collection of one of the finest museums in the world.
There was a sense of satisfaction from the audience; the wood riddle was resolved and had meant something. The projected video started up again and the realization came that this was Linyekula’s village, the ceremony where the statue had become something and the place where he had found his own history. Michael began moving within the projected video with luscious and reverent choreography. The performers then left with the many faces of this small village in the Congo projected on a wall of the patio.
I commend any artist for having the stomach to critique an institution that is funding their work. This type of questioning may well be the catalyst for significant change in any institution. Linyekula used dance and spoken word to touch on issues of accessibility, colonial pillaging and lost history. He provided the audience with a satisfying conclusion to his story in the present but ended with the sense that there is still complex history to be uncovered in the future. The MET did well to have such a fine storyteller examine and critique their collection.