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People / Mbole People

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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