Bringing an early-modern African queen into the limelight

Yale art historian Cécile Fromont was an on-screen scholar, offering key insights, in “African Queens: Njinga,” Netflix’s docudrama about a 17th-century ruler.
Cécile Fromont with New Haven and Yale campus in the background.

Cécile Fromont (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

A new four-part Netflix docuseries, “African Queens: Njinga,” tells the story of the 17th-century warrior Queen Njinga, who ruled over the territories of Ndongo and Matamba in present-day Angola. Cécile Fromont, a professor in the history of art in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is one of a handful of scholars featured in the series who talk about Queen Njinga’s rule in the broader historical context of the Atlantic slave trade and European colonialism.

Part documentary and part dramatic re-enactment of key moments in the life of the African queen, “African Queens: Njinga” is executive produced by actress and talk show host Jada Pinkett Smith, who is also the series’ narrator. The series traces Njinga’s rule as she battles the encroachment of Portuguese settlers who are decimating the population of her kingdom through the slave trade. Fromont, who also served as a behind-the-scenes consultant for the production, is featured in each episode.

Queen Njinga from the 1660s Araldi Manuscript.
Queen Njinga from the 1660s Araldi Manuscript.

In her scholarship, Fromont specializes on the visual, material, and religious culture of Africa and Latin America from 1500 to 1800, as well as on the Portuguese-speaking Atlantic world and the slave trade. She is the author of “The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture and the Kingdom of Kongo” (2014) and of “Images on a Mission in Early Modern Kongo and Angola” (2022), about an atlas of watercolors composed in the 17th and 18th centuries by Capuchin Franciscan  missionaries. She also appeared in Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s 2017 documentary “Africa’s Great Civilizations.”

Fromont recently spoke with Yale News about the new docuseries and its relationship to her own scholarship and teaching. A condensed and edited version of that conversation follows.

How did you get involved in the Netflix project?

Cécile Fromont: The production company reached out to a range of scholars who are specialists on West-Central Africa in the early modern period in general, but the 17th century in particular. I began to work with them as a consultant, mostly focusing on the visual and material culture that would be featured.

This is a very exciting part of the project because, in this case — unlike the dramatization of events that have taken place in Europe, which has been done many different times — you're bringing to life an angle of 17th-century Africa, and you really almost have to start from scratch because there have been few occasions where this historical period has been brought to the screen. It was really exciting to work with the production team in terms of the broad strokes of what things should look like, and then, over time, to work on ironing out some specifics about what looks right and what looks wrong. In the end, with the finished product, some of it was right and some of it was wrong in terms of being historically accurate.

From the outside, when you're looking at a documentary or a movie, it’s quite easy to pinpoint things that look out of place, but when you’re on the inside building something, things are trickier because there are many, many pieces to the puzzle.

What were some of the specific topics the team consulted with you about?

Fromont: One example had to do with the social politics of modesty. Many of the women portrayed, for example, would have had their breasts exposed, which is not possible to do in a docudrama for a 21st-century global viewership. So, it’s a dialogue. And in a way, as a scholar, that’s kind of exciting because that’s what this story is: It’s a dialogue between our own time and the past. And accuracy or seeking truth is not exactly what we’re doing, but we are trying to reckon with those historical periods and also with their long shadows extending into the present time.

How does the docudrama relate to your own scholarship?

Fromont: My practice as a historian and an art historian — and as a student of visual culture and of the Atlantic world — is very much in dialogue with the politics of today. It’s in dialogue with the consequences of the historical events that I'm looking at and the consequences of the interpretations and the misinterpretations of those events.

We need to know about Atlantic Africa in the 17th and 18th century to understand the world in which we live now, and I really want to champion that by becoming involved with these kinds of initiatives in the media. I’ve worked in the past with Henry Louis Gates Jr. on a series about African civilizations. I’m collaborating with contemporary artists who are giving another kind of entry into that period and its relationship to our own times, including Sammy Baloji, a great artist from the Congo who works in Belgium. We’ve been collaborating on different projects about the Kingdom of Kongo.

Does the series also intersect with your teaching interests?

Fromont: I have been trying to find ways to teach efficiently — but also thoughtfully and intentionally — about this time period and its relationship to today because it is a history that is very heavy. It is difficult; it is violent, and its violence is so present in our own world that it’s something that I think demands a lot of attention. I try to bring in different facets of the visual and material culture, which is what my research is about, so I can approach it deeply, but also with an awareness of the ways in which it is challenging for students — and for each student in a different way. This approach creates classrooms that are close-knit communities where we can actually talk about these objects from a space of solidarity and respect.

A still from “African Queens: Njinga”
A still from “African Queens: Njinga” (Credit: Netflix)

As for Queen Njinga, I do have a kind of a particular perspective on her because I'm probably one of the only historians focusing on visual culture in that region. In my work, I have found new documentation — portraits of her made at the time and also representations of her. So one of my access points into her story is through the visual culture, and I have been able to share some of the sources that I found with the production company to offer a sense of what 17th-century Angola would look like.

Did you learn a lot about her by taking part in the production?

Fromont: Absolutely. It allowed me to see how she resonates in different ways for different people. In my own work, she kind of comes in and out, in moments of crisis and in moments of great historical shuffling. But it was really instructive to see how other scholars thought of her as a historical constant, as a kind of red thread that goes through that period. From my perspective, Njinga is an element of disruption. When she comes into play, something is being shuffled. So it's interesting to see the other side of the story, where she is the constant and everything else shuffles around her.

In the series, Jada Pinkett Smith declares that “It is time for all of us to come together and know her name.” Why is it important for us to know about Njinga?

Fromont: There are many reasons. She is, in fact, a household name in most of the Atlantic world and in South America, particularly in Brazil, as a kind of a mythical character who embodies the values of strength, tenacity, and ideas of Black sovereignty — of power and empowerment in the face of outside forces. She has this great aura.

But in some other places of the Atlantic, she’s been forgotten. But she was an ally with the Dutch in the Thirty Years’ War. The whole shuffling of the Atlantic world, including European politics, was related to her actions and to some of the decisions she made. So she is definitely one piece of that chessboard. If we understand more of her actions and if we can rescue her story and bring it to the fore, then we get a better understanding of the history of the 17th century at large.

Finally, there are dimensions of our common historical imagination where some actors and forces have been silenced in the relatively recent past because of the dominant stories that have been written for political reasons, that have to do with the history of colonialism in Africa from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. In terms of representation and visibility, historical figures as heroes or villains from a diversity of backgrounds and places and historical context is something that is very important in our multicultural societies. That history is multifaceted and involved people from the African continent that were as influential and important as people from Europe and certainly in relationship with them — in dialogue and conflict. It gives us a rich story and a story that is more complex, but is also more satisfying because we get to understand better the world in which we live.

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