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Mangbetu People

Location: NE Democratic Rep of the Congo

Population: 40,000

Arts and History: The Mangbetu are an ancient and poorly understood culture, who are thought to have migrated southward into the Congo from the upper Sudan. They have endured centuries of invasions and domination by outside forces, and this has resulted in much fragmentation and intermarriage. As a result, their artworks are rare. Statues are thought to be ancestral portraits, but this is not known for sure. The most famous pieces of the Mangbetu are the terracotta drinking vessels with the same proud and regal head-shape found on statues. Occasionally these vessels are carved from wood. In addition to their elegant shapes, these pieces usually are decorated with copious and dramatic scarification. There are also harps and other musical instruments, again usually figural and easily identified. Mangbetu pieces, when viewed in profile, can remind one of the portrait busts of ancient Egyptians, with the bust of Nefertiti coming to mind. Almost all of their carvings and pottery are prestige items produced for the ruling class, a practice more commonly found farther south in Cameroon. Though their output is sparse, a surprising number of masterpieces exist.