The Mangbetu moved to the Congo region from Sudan in the 1700s, and
live in societies that revolve around a court system. They are particularly
renowned for their professional musicians, and also for their extravagant
dancing and ceremonial pageantry. Their artworks were produced for the
royal court families, and ranged from architecture to objects of
religious/spiritual significance and secular items decorated with pleasing
motifs and designs.
Mangbetu art is perhaps most recognizable for the inverted-cone coiffures
of the (usually female) figures that tend to adorn it. This is seen in the rare
wooden figures, as well as in ceramics. The coiffure – exaggerated by
cranial deformation during infancy – was worn by women until the 1950s.
Most of the pieces found their way to the royal courts. Kings were
originally believed to be semi-divine, able to control natural resources
using magical objects such as leopard parts. Mangbetu resistance to
European rule had serious socioeconomic repercussions, but by the time
that the European hold on the area had solidified, the Mangbetu were in
the habit of trading and exchanging prestige goods – notably ornate
ceramics – between chiefly courts and to colonials.
The role of these pieces is uncertain. The Mangbetu creator god is named
Noro (also Kilima), but there is little sculptural abstraction in Mangbetu art
that hints at an aim beyond the representational, or the secular decorative.
They may also represent ancestors, which the kings usually command be
revered. It is possible that the decorations on such pieces are designed to
repel the negative effects of ‘Likundu’ – evil spirits – or witchery, which is
a major concern in Mangbetu society.