When the Mangbetu tribespeople left the Sudan in the middle of the 18th century, they re-located their kingdom in the north-eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Their social structure is not dissimilar to other Zairean forest-based tribes where the men hunt and fish, while the women are left to cultivate the manioc fields. Ultimate authority over the 40,000 Mangbetu rests with a king whose sons govern the various provinces, which are divided into districts and villages. The Mangbetu tribe have been at war with their neighbours, the
Zande, since the 18th century.
Mangbetu art, famous for its realism, is a court art —objects were displayed in the king’s presence as prestige paraphernalia. When Western contact was first made with the Mangbetu at the turn of the century, white explorers were struck by the quality of the architectural and artistic skills of their tribal craftsmen. The king’s great hall was alleged to have been 5o metres wide.
Most of the pieces produced by the Mangbetu were made of light wood and date from around the turn of the century, so it has been suggested that the arrival of colonials stimulated the production of artistic objects and a European influence was felt on Mangbetu art.
The physical characteristics of the Mangbetu people are reflected in highly realistic-looking statues. For example, the Mangbetu tradition of compressing an infant’s head within raffia in order to obtain an elongated skull is apparent in the statues. This elongation was further enhanced by a high coiffure finishing in a cup-like finial.
Besides wood carvings, the Mangbetu also worked in ivory, the trade of which was controlled by the king.
Mangbetu art was produced exclusively to enhance the prestige of the court and therefore it is not sur¬prising that masks, which are usually associated with initiation ceremonies, were not produced.
Mangbetu artists have sculpted a series of ancestor figures, male and female, about 6o cm high, in light wood with linear scarifications on the body.
The Mangbetu adorned many prestige objects with figures, i.e., anthropomorphic harps [D], where the body of the instrument issues arms and legs, although sometimes only a head is carved at the end of the shaft . They have carved small anthropo-morphic pipes, knives and honey containers and have produced a dark grey ceramic adorned with a head.
They are also famous for a type of knife with an open-worked curved blade, circular stools with an open-work foot and semi-circular drums , sometimes inset with copper nails.
This text has been excerpted from this Book:
Art and Cultures from the African Heartland Hardcover
Author: Jan-Lodew Grootaers
Publisher: Fonds Mercator; 1St Edition edition (2007)