Mangbetu Royal Art and Herbert Lang, 1902-1906

by Enid Schildkrout
Museum for African Art (formerly American Museum of Natural History)

Portrait of Nemali, Okondo's 3rd wife, Mangbetu peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Herbert Lang. Submitted by Enid Schildkrout.

The Mangbetu ideal of feminine beauty, exemplified by royal women at the turn of the century, featured an elongated bound head with an elaborate fanlike coiffure. The Mangbetu, and some neighboring groups, often based their figurative art on this style. The Mangbetu head was depicted in wood, ivory, and ceramic on various objects, including pots, knife handles, and musical instruments. Pottery depicting this particular hairdress and style of adornment developed after the turn of the 20th century in and around Niangara, a cosmopolitan town that attracted Zande and Mangbetu artists. Whereas women had traditionally made coiled pottery for domestic use, pots adorned with heads became popular partly in response to commissions from Europeans. Male artists began to sculpt heads on the pots, sometimes working together with women who made the container itself.