Ethnographic Art for the Discerning Collector!

Posts tagged ‘African Art’

The Mangbetu People and their Pottery


Mangbetu are a tribal group of people living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the Orientale Province.  They speak a language called kingbetu, part of the regional Lingala language (a member of the Central Sudanic linguistic family).  The Mangbetu call their language Nemangbetu. (1)

The Mangbetu are well known for their highly developed music and art.  The most famous being the Mangbetu harp or guitar.  Exemplary versions have sold for well over $100,000!  They are often adorned with carved figures of wood or ivory with exceptionally detailed carving.  Their music has been widely studied by musicologists as well. (2)

The uniqueness of the Mangbetu has always fascinated European explorers.  By tradition, the Mangbetu have wrapped the heads of infants in tightly wrapped cloth to give them a distinctive elongated shape to the skull.  Although the practice began to die out around 1950, it is still traditionally practiced as it is considered a sign of great beauty today to the Mangbetu and it does make the Mangbetu figures easy to identify in art and sculpture. (3)

Tribal Facts

The Mangbetu had consisted of a number of small clans who, from southward migrations in the early 1700’s, had come in contact with a number of northward-migrating Bantu-speaking tribes among whom they lived. In the late 18th century a group of Mangbetu-speaking elites, mainly from the Mabiti clan, assumed control over other Mangbetu clans and many neighboring Bantu-speaking tribes. It is likely that their knowledge of iron and copper forgery, by which they made weapons and fine ornaments, gave them a military and economic advantage over their neighbors. (4)


The mystique of the ancient Mangbetu revolves around the fact that the Mangbetu are considered to be a historically cannibalistic people.  This fact was emphasized in a documentary called Spirits of Defiance: The Mangbetu People of Zaire.  “David Lewis asserts that a “wave of flesh-eating that spread from inveterate cannibals like Bakusa to Batetela, the Mangbetu, and much of the Zande” resulted from ongoing political disorder caused by Swahili raids in the .  However, Keim contends that many of the accounts of cannibalism are not based on “careful fieldwork in Africa but on nineteenth-century European accounts that were deeply prejudiced by Dark Continent myths.” ” (5)

The Pottery

Pottery produced by the Mangbetu was classified as three types: the large pot (also known as nembwo), the small pot, and sculpted and decorated pots. The nembwo served general purposes, such as getting water from the lake and carrying vegetables. The smaller pots were used for more specific tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and pouring, and some were even used as toilets. The decorative pots were made more as a hobby, and nowadays are collector’s items and can fetch a high price in art auctions. (6)

The nembwo and small pot have a rather round conventional pot shape that is more spherical than most due to how it is constructed, and most are thin and smooth with a thicker opening. The decorated and sculpted pots of the Mangbetu tribe have human or animal figures (generally just heads) at the opening of the jar. Occasionally this sculpted figure is a Mangbetu woman with the traditional elongated head and decorative head dressing. The handles of these pots are sometimes molded into animal or human parts. The bottom of the pot is round, and occasionally patterns will be carved onto the surface. The pots are monochromatic and are made of coarse textured clay which is either hand built or made using variations of the “hammer-and-anvil” technique.  They are usually a natural russet color or dark gray (the decorative pots).  The latter often have incised patterns on the surface in addition to the human or animal figures. The surfaces are textured using shell scrapers and wooden pattern-making tools and then the pots are fired in open bonfires. (7)

IMG_0017 IMG_0018FullSizeRender4 

Terracotta Mangbetu Pot #1

IMG_0005 MangbetuMangbetu Terracotta #2   Terracotta Mangbetu Pot #2

FullSizeRender12  Terracotta Mangbetu #3  Terracotta Mangbetu Pot #3

FullSizeRender9     Wooden Mangbetu Sculpture– Man and WomanWood Mangbetu Sculpture Couple

All items from the collection at


(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) sourced from:

  • Christopher Ehret, The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800(University of Virginia Press, 2002), 436–438.
  • Curtis A. Keim, Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind(Basic Civitas Books, 1999), 42–43, 92–93.
  • David Levering Lewis, The Race to Fashoda: European Colonialism and African Resistance in the Scramble for Africa(New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987).

(6) (7) sourced from:

  1. “Pottery”edu. Retrieved 2015-03-05.
  2. “Mangbetu Terracotta Statue Pair Antique African Tribal Art – eBay”.com. Retrieved 2015-03-  05.
  3. “Mangbetu Clay Pot – Congo”. Retrieved 2015-03-05.
  4. “The Congo Expedition: Art of Daily Life”org. Retrieved 2015-03-05.

Phillips, Ruth B., and Christopher Burghard Steiner. Unpacking culture art and commodity in colonial and postcolonial worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Print.

Divination Among African Tribal Groups

Divination Device

Divination Device

This article is about African divination. Divination is used to help interpret situations that need to be dealt with and choices that need to be made. Its purpose is to define the meaning from the invisible from harmonious and conflicting relationships with the deities, spirits, and ancestors.
The most common divination techniques include throwing objects such as nuts, pebbles, and bones, and having someone read where and how they fall. The Yoruba of Nigeria and the Fon of Benin use divination by throwing kola nuts and depending on the results, lines are traced on a plate and creating 256 possible combinations that correspond to all of a man’s destinies. Animals are also used as part of the divination practices. The Dogon of Mali use a jackal as the animal of choice, since it was born from the union of the sky god and the earth and is the repository of God’s first word. The soothsayer attracts the animal with a left on the divination tablet on which Sam has been scattered and where the jackal will leave traces of his passage. And, on the other hand, the Bamileke of Cameroon use a spider as their animal of choice. Lines are drawn at the entrance of the spiders then representing both maternal and paternal ancestors, and objects such as flowers leaves pieces of: that’s twigs and small pebbles are placed in the den. When the spider comes out at night it will push some of the objects along that trace lines giving an answer to the soothsayer.
The Kuba use wood objects in the shape of animals for their divination process. Some are in the shape of crocodiles, lizards, warthogs or dogs. The animals back is moistened and robbed with a small wooden cylinder; but the cylinder remains attached to the surface, it means the question is the right one. According to my source, oracles are used to identify which is thieves and unfaithful wives. Animals used in the ceremonies are chosen on account of their nose or sight, or their ability to track and catch prey. Another animal used as a mouse. The diviner looks for signs regarding the client’s problems by looking at the arrangement of small sticks moved by a mouse inside a container. Diviners carry containers with a sculpture attached which depicts their client. Divination with a mouse yields less specific answers than those that would be obtained in a trance. In the case of a trance, it is induced by the sound of the small hammer struck rhythmically on a gong. It is said that the diviner is seized by a bush spirit or by divinities related to a specific family from generation to generation. The state of possession can be very violent, endangering the life of the possessed person.
The information in this article was taken from the book Africa, one of the Dictionaries of Civilization series by Ivan Bargna, pages 183-188.

In the Beginning….