By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Democratic Republic of the Congo; Mangbetu peoples. Pipes (Catalog No: 90.1/ 4117 and Catalog No: 90.1/ 4646)

The depiction of foreigners in African art is not merely the exoticization of the other. Rather, it is evidence of complex social relations, cultural borrowings, political negotiations, and identities in the making. African art demonstrates that historical encounters are never neutral, passive, or impervious to assimilation into cultural expressive modes. As James Clifford writes, “Cultures do not hold still for their portraits” (1989). When, for example, two social scientists from the American Museum of Natural History traveled from 1909 to 1915 to document and collect northeastern Congolese material culture, Mangbetu and Zande arts were forever transformed. Not only did regional artists directly depict the two scientists in art forms such as these pipes, but the encounter with Westerners from the late 1800s onward marked a significant turning point as artists sought to satisfy the aesthetic preferences of a new foreign audience.