Mangbetu Royal Art and Herbert Lang, 1902-1906
by Enid Schildkrout
Museum for African Art (formerly American Museum of Natural History)
Mangbetu style art, including portraits of the human head, developed from a long-standing aesthetic tradition found throughout the region. Everywhere men and women decorated objects from tiny arrow shafts to pots, knives, musical instruments, hats and hat pins, wall paintings, and even the human body with intricate geometric patterns. Before 1900, some people in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, if not the Mangbetu themselves, also adorned ivory horns, harps and pipes with sculpted human heads. The Mangbetu-style art that flourished in the colonial period built upon the accepted conventions and forms of decorative art. Conscious of a new foreign audience, artists from many groups produced stylized images of the Mangbetu that served as a deliberate statement of Mangbetu identity.