Mangbetu Royal Art and Herbert Lang, 1902-1906

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

Okondo’s seated portrait, Mangbetu peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Herbert Lang. Submitted by Enid Schildkrout.

Several ruling families of the Azande and Mangbetu dominated the region in the 18th and 19th centuries. A ruler's distinction depended on the size of his court, his ability to command an army and the objects and adornments that surrounded him. Rulers wore the most powerful charms and owned the largest and most ornate furnishings. Predatory animals like the leopard, elephant, and eagle symbolized power and, when caught, parts like hide, tusks, or feathers were reserved for the use of rulers. Rulers also gave valuable items away as gifts. Feathers were particularly important, and some rulers raised grey parrots so that they could pluck the red tail feathers for use on hats, whistles and shields without killing the bird. This is a portrait of Chief Okondo wearing a bark cloth wrapper, a raphia belt, and an elaborate feather hat that includes eagle and parrot feathers.