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People / Congo

Yombe (Kiyombe) People

Yombe (Kiyombe) People

Location: Far NW Tip of Democratic Rep of the Congo and Rep of Congo

Population: 350,000

Arts: It is virtually impossible to define the difference in Yombe arts and that of their larger neighbors, the Kongo. Their long association with, and domination by, the Kongo has resulted in the absorption of most of the familiar Kongo art forms. Like the Kongo, they produce imposing power figures, the "nkisi" and "nkonde," beautiful initiation masks, and gorgeous maternity figures, known as "phemba." Prestige items are also important. For a discussion of the art of the Yombe, distinct from the Kongo mostly in academic terms, see the write-up under "Kongo," found under the list of peoples.

History: The Yombe are thought to have migrated to the tip of the two Congos, from what is today Gabon, during the 14th century. Oral traditions link them with the old Mayomba Kingdom, from which they took their name. The expansion of the Kongo Kingdom in the late 17th century forced the Yombe to move from banks of the Congo River, but they stayed in the general area, heavily influenced not only by the Kongo but also by Portuguese colonists.

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Zande (Azande) People

Zande (Azande) People

Location: NE Democratic Rep of Congo/Sudan/Central African Republic

Population: Est. 750,000

Arts: Though limited in quantity, the arts of this fascinating culture are quite famous in collecting circles, and include numerous masterpieces prominently displayed in private collections and museums. The most well-known forms are the unique, small statuettes known as "yanda," used by the "Mani" secret society, which venerates women in magical ceremonies. The "yanda," with their abstract, triangular heads and squat bodies, are sometimes decorated with beads and hoop-like earrings or nose rings. Large, angular ancestor statues are known, though they are somewhat rare. They are quite unique, with their surprised expressions and stubby, zigzag arms and legs. Masks used in important Mani rituals and during funerals, are very rare. They are impressive and powerful, with white faces, open-work round eyes, and a fierce mouth, often with bared teeth. They are hard to differentiate from those of the Zaramo. The Zande produce magnificent figural harps, similar in shape to those of the Mangbetu, their neighbors and bitter enemies. In addition to the harps, there are other musical instruments, like finger pianos and drums, as well as fly whisks, stools, and elaborate metal weaponry. Zande art is a fascinating mix of styles from the northern parts of the DRC, southern Sudan, and even northeastern Tanzania. Their work remains popular and sought-after by collectors around the world.

History: The word "azande" means "people who possess much land," which is appropriate considering the wide swath of land that they occupy today. Thought to have originated in The Sudan, they were a warrior people who relocated during the 18th century to the northern part of the eastern Congo, along the Uele River. Their system of "government" is based on the royal lineage whose origin is traced to the family "Avangara." The king rules with the help of his sons, who fan out into the various provinces. The Zande have been constantly at war with the Mangbetu for over 200 years. Unlike their neighbors however, their art is not a court art, but is linked primarily to rituals of the Mani Society, which helps to balance out the power of the ruling family.

 

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Tabwa People

Tabwa People

Location: Southeastern Democratic Rep of Congo

Population: 200,000

Arts: The elegant art of the Tabwa has only been considered distinct for about 30 years. The majority of pieces collected prior to the 1970's were identified as Luba, who are their neighbors to the west. Tabwa art is produced primarily to venerate ancestors, and in that respect it reflects one of the most predominant of Congo ideals. The Tabwa produce small to mid-size ancestor statues, which often feature beautiful triangular scarifications thought to represent the new moon; long, braided hairdos which can extend down the back almost to the waist; and a curious mouth posture with protruding tongue. Often the face appears to be looking slightly skyward, eyes wide open. These ancestor carvings, called "mikisi, and the rituals associated with them, allow certain families and traditional leaders to consolidate their power, using the"special" knowledge of the ancestors to their advantage. It boils down, in many ways, to the politics of fear, West African-style. Unlike the Luba, whose statuary is predominantly female, the Tabwa carve both male and female figures. Another reflection of their recent Congo heritage is the production of small prestige objects like combs, stools, and small ivory and bone figures. Though a few impressive helmet masks do exist, their purpose is unknown. Their appearance strongly parallels that of their statuary. Tabwa statues are among the most charming in all the Congo, though masterpieces are rare. History: The distant history of the Tabwa is lost. Even their presence in the Congo and their consolidation as "one people" under the name "Tabwa" is poorly documented. It is thought that they originated somewhere in East Africa, perhaps Tanzania, and fled across Lake Tanganyika in small groups to escape famine and wars. Once in the Congo, small villages popped up along the western shores of the lake, and over time they came under the power and influence of the Luba. It is ironic that unrest in the eastern Congo, brought on mostly by refugees from the Rwandan civil war, has led to so much chaos that many Tabwa now find themselves crossing back across the lake into Tanzania, in yet another search for peace.

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Punu (Puno) People

Punu (Puno) People


Location: Southern Gabon, Republic of the Congo

Population: 40,000

Arts and History: The arts of the Punu reflect the area in which they live, where the veneration of ancestral remains is the source of much of the art. Masks are the primary mode of expression for the Punu. Like their neighbors the Fang and Kota, there are some impressive statues thought to have a "guardian" function. Though rare, these statues can be extremely beautiful. The famous, one might even say ubiquitous, face masks are worn with a colorful full-body costume. Though many have an Asian-like expression, no such connection has been established. Known as "duma" or "mvudi," masks represent a female guardian spirit, and are danced at the initiation of young girls, funerary rites, and ancestor rituals. In the "Mukui" society, the masked performer, sometimes on stilts, performs at a dance of the full moon. Punu masks are characterized by a white, kaolin-covered face, a diamond shaped scar on the forehead, and full lips. These masks are highly-stylized and strikingly three-dimensional, though there is little variation in appearance from mask to mask. History: Little is known of Punu history, though they are thought to have moved into the area from the north. They are of Bantu stock, and bloodlines of the Bantu, in general, can be traced back at least 2000 years. The Bantu, who perhaps arose in the far eastern portion of modern-day Nigeria, displaced hundreds of indigenous cultures in their rapid expansion to become the dominant linguistic group in all of Africa.

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Ekonde (Mongo-Ekonde, Ekonda) People

Ekonde (Mongo-Ekonde, Ekonda) People

Location: Kasai Region of the Democratic Rep of the Congo

Population: Uncertain, but at least 1,000,000

Arts and History: The Ekonde, a sub-group of the Mongo, are known mostly for their elegant copper anklet-form currency, though so little is actually known about them that it is possible that they could also have been worn for special occasions, like weddings. Their infrequent use was most-likely restricted to "bride price" transactions, serving not only as gifts between families but also to settle disputes which might arise surrounding the subject of marriage. They essentially are "prestige" objects. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica the Mongo "are any of several peoples living in the African equatorial forest, south of the main Congo River bend and north of the Kasai and Sankuru rivers in Congo (Kinshasa). They include numerous ethnic groups such as the Bokote, Ekonda, Bolia, Sengele, Ntomba, Ndengese, Songomeno, Mbole, Bongandu, Boyela, Nkutu, and Tetela-Kusu. They speak dialects of a common language, Mongo or Nkundo, from the Benue-Congo branch of the Niger-Congo languages. Many groups are disappearing because of falling birth rates." Arts of the Mongo and their relatives, exist mostly in "oral" form, with songs and the dances associated with them dominant. Considering the fact that the Mongo peoples are one of the largest ethnic groups in the Congo Basin it is surprising that relatively few forms of the so-called "plastic arts" exist.

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Ambete (Mbete) People

Ambete (Mbete) People

Location: Gabon and Republic of the Congo

Population: Unknown

Arts and History: The Ambete are thought to be descendents of the Kota, and like most other cultures in the area, use "guardian figures" to protect as well as venerate the bones and memories of their ancestors. The Ambete are known almost entirely for their distinctive and rather large guardian figures, which are wonderfully abstract. The faces and body are often white from the application of kaolin, and have a striking triangular face, often with bared teeth. The abdomen is somewhat rounded with arms fixed to the sides. Figures usually have a cavity carved out of the back of the figure, used to house relics like old bones and other smaller artifacts connected to the ancestors, in much the same way as European Catholics venerate certain saints through the preservation and display of relics. The faces of most Ambete figures strongly resemble those found on the masks of the Vuvi and the Mitsogho, even though Ambete masks are virtually unknown. Because of the scattered nature of most of the peoples of the Gabon, primarily due to the invasion of the Fulani into the area 200 years ago, there is almost nothing known of their history. Also the very nature of Gabon, being so densely forested, makes the study of its residents a daunting task.

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Mbole People

Mbole People

Location: Central Democratic Rep of the Congo


Population: 150,000

Arts: The abstract wood carvings of the Mbole are rare, but they are highly distinctive. Their output consists primarily of remarkable small statues used in the "Lilwa" society and ancestral ceremonies, a few extremely rare masks with minimal design, and huge copper ankle "bracelets."

The Mbole live in independent villages headed by a chief chosen from the elders of each extended family. Social and spiritual order is maintained through various societies, run by healers, elders, as well as powerful women. The carvings which put Mbole sculpture on the "map" are those of the Lilwa Society, a powerful group headed by a leader known as the "Isoya." The Lilwa oversees most aspects of the daily life of each village, but judicial proceedings are perhaps their most important duty. Justice is swift for those found guilty of major offenses, with hanging the punishment. Families of each hanged individual are required to produce a small figure representing the deceased. The shape and design of each figure is static, but very distinctive, with hands on thighs, shoulders hunched over in a position of defeat, an enlarged, abstract head, and a downward looking, heart-shaped white face. Reportedly containing the soul of the executed, the figures are kept in special forest huts and used during initiations to emphasize the importance of good behavior. The other village societies use similar figures, but their differentiation is rather esoteric. The Mbole do use masks on rare occasions, but most that exist were field-collected and rather vague in appearance, having incised or painted linear designs below the eyes, resembling tears. The Yela, a neighboring group, use masks with almost the same look. The Mbole also forge massive copper ankle cuffs, used as currency on rare but important transactions, which are very popular with collectors.

History: The history of the Mbole is sketchy at best, but it is known that they came from north of the Congo (Zaire) River, and moved into their current location on the left bank during the 18th century. They speak a Bantu dialect, and their closest relatives are thought to be the Yela, who share certain rituals with them. The Mbole remain rather mysterious, known mostly through their art.

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Mangbetu People

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.

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