Carved into wood and hammered out of stone, centuries of African art history are now on display at Kongo: Majesty and Power, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The new exhibit, which opens today, features nearly 150 statues, masks, tapestries, and carvings created by artisans of the Kongo kingdom, which ruled over parts of modern-day Angola, Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The show opens with delicately-carved ivory horns alongside woven tapestries and spreads out over three additional rooms, each loaded with hand-wrought variations on the human figure. Museum visitors will glimpse priests, kings, farmers, hunters, and Europeans, the last of which had a catastrophic impact on the Kongo, first as slave traders and then, later, as domineering colonialists. Five centuries of European influence on West Africa is caught up in these works, and to walk through the exhibit is to commune with both familial joy and enslaved pain.

Met Museum Kongo Exhibit Preview-11.jpg
(Scott Heins/Gothamist)

Met Museum Kongo Exhibit Preview-15.jpg
(Scott Heins/Gothamist)

It all culminates in the exhibit's last and largest room, where fifteen towering Mangaaka power figures are displayed in glass cases. These figures, made of wood, iron, cowrie shells, and textiles, were sculpted in the late 1800s along the Chiloango River. Gnarled and menacing, the power figures were commissioned by Kongo kings to be defense mechanisms against Western invaders—their bodies are covered with gnarled spikes, but the figures are unmessy, the works of very skilled hands.

In a simple but brilliant move, the Met has included two projectors in the main Mangaaka room which show a series of modern photographs of the Chiloango River area, offering an immediate glimpse at the land upon which these figures were created. It's a simple and effective compression of African space and time at the end of an exhibit that contains so much of each.

Kongo: Majesty and Power runs from Friday, September 18th through January 3, 2016 // The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Ave, Manhattan // Admission $25 (recommended)