Tag Archives: Zande

Object of the day: a 19th century Mangbetu or Zande bark box from D.R. Congo

Mangbetu or Zande bark box. Height: cm. Image courtesy of the Collection Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden, The Netherlands (#2668-24).

Mangbetu or Zande bark box. Height: 44,5 cm. Image courtesy of the Collection Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden, The Netherlands (#2668-24).

The above bark box was collected by the Dutch explorer Juan Maria Schuver in South Sudan between 1881 and 1883. Unfortunately Schuver didn’t make any notes about this and the three other similar boxes (#2668-25, #2668-26 & #2668-27 – the last one being oval) he collected. We do know for certain that he himself never visited the Mangbetu and Zande region. Possibly he acquired these containers from Zande mercenaries in Sudan or on the market in Khartoum. The early collection date of this example makes it one of the oldest known Zande bark boxes. In the past, these were often described erroneously as honey containers or receptacles for ancestral relics. In fact, they were most often used for holding trinkets, clothing, charms and other personal treasures. Herbert Lang wrote in his field notes about a similar container: ‘A sort of box (nembandi) made of bark and two pieces of wood for a bottom and a cover. They are used to carry the smaller effects of men during voyages and also to store them away in their huts. Most of the objects stored are ornaments, charms, or clothing’. (note 591)

What is interesting about the bark box illustrated above, is the fact that it lacks figurative elements. Most examples in the literature include lids with carved heads on top. There is thus reason to believe that these boxes, like many other forms of Mangbetu and Zande household art, were undergoing changes during the turn of the century. As Schildkrout & Keim demonstrated in African reflections. Art in Northeastern Zaire (University of Washington Press, 1990), the European presence in the region greatly expanded the market for certain types of art. Many chiefs used art to win favor with colonial officials and this new patronage did have consequences for the local material culture. One was that it encouraged the development and spread of certain types of art already present in the region. Artists more and more produced the kinds of works that European and American visitors admired, preferably in the much-loved “Mangbetu style”: an elongated wrapped head and halo-like coiffure which depicted a distinctive turn-of-the-century fashion of upper-class Mangbetu women.

All these objects depicting a Mangbetu-style head were – and  unfortunately often still are – called “Mangbetu” no matter who produced it. In many instances works regarded by collectors and museums as most typically Mangbetu were in fact made by Barambo, Bangba, or Zande artists. The art known as Mangbetu was not the exclusive work of Mangbetu artists, but is rather an expression of the political and cultural preeminence of that group at the time it was created.

This Western influence thus transformed certain kinds of traditional objects: for the first time they became vehicles for anthropomorphic sculpture. Pottery is the prime example – sculpted heads were added to the rich inventory of existing shapes – but bark boxes too underwent a redesign. The above example shows the archetype for this type of object. Below another box with a wooden lid and (stool-like) base added. Next a classic example with the typical Mangbetu-style head. Lastly, a container representing a full figure – where the actual box still only makes up a small segment at the center. In a very short period of time – ca. 30 years – this object type thus was subject of a major adjustment due to external influences. The case of the Uele region is well documented thanks to the findings of the American Museum of Natural History’s Congo Expedition (1909-1915), and makes one wonder what happened in many other parts of the D.R. Congo.

Mangbetu bark box. Height: 36,2 cm. Gift of King Leopold to the AMNH in 1907. Image courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

Mangbetu or Zande bark box. Height: 36,2 cm. Gift of King Leopold to the AMNH in 1907. Image courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

Mangbetu or Zande bark box. Height: 52,5 cm. Collection Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The base incised with the artits's name "Songo Dekvoi". Reportedly collected before 1911 in Rungu Village, Uele Region. Acquired at Sotheby's, New York, "The William W.Brill Collection of African Art", 17 November 2006. Lot Lot 115. (sold for $60.000). Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Mangbetu or Zande bark box. Height: 52,5 cm. Collection Indianapolis Museum of Art (2006.114.A-C). The base incised with the artits’s name “Songo Dekvoi”. Reportedly collected before 1911 in Rungu Village, Uele Region. Acquired at Sotheby’s, New York, “The William W.Brill Collection of African Art”, 17 November 2006. Lot Lot 115. (sold for $60.000). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Mangbetu bark box. Height: 33,2 cm. Collected before 1915 by Herbert Lang. Image courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History (#90.1/2221). Expedition field note: NAISO. Carved figure imitating a saluting messenger of white men, the exaggeration of the cartridge belt and the sexual portion is rather a hint at the behavior of these men. They always carry a cartridge belt and also an old muzzle loader. They are never provided with powder or cartridges, but as a rule they behave very arrogant in the absence of white men and often profit of the charms so easily offered by the MANGBETU women. These figures are considered simply funny. The MANGBETU have no idols, though they firmly believe in bad spirits on the road, in the forest, in case of death of any of their chiefs they change the site of their villages.

Mangbetu bark box. Height: 33,2 cm. Collected before 1915 by Herbert Lang. Image courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History (#90.1/2221). Expedition field note: Naiso. Carved figure imitating a saluting messenger of white men, the exaggeration of the cartridge belt and the sexual portion is rather a hint at the behavior of these men. They always carry a cartridge belt and also an old muzzle loader. They are never provided with powder or cartridges, but as a rule they behave very arrogant in the absence of white men and often profit of the charms so easily offered by the Mangbetu women. These figures are considered simply funny. The Mangbetu have no idols, though they firmly believe in bad spirits on the road, in the forest, in case of death of any of their chiefs they change the site of their villages.

Witchcraft Among the Azande (Singer & Ryle, 1981)

Evans-Pritchard’s book Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande has become a classic of both ethnography and theories of witchcraft. Now, anthropologist John Ryle and film-maker André Singer, who was himself one of Evans-Pritchard’s students and has published on the Azande, have teamed together to produce the film Witchcraft among the Azande for Granada Television’s Disappearing World series. Singer wanted to learn for himself the accuracy of Evans-Pritchard’s analysis and to note the changes since the original fieldwork carried out between 1926 and 1930.

Among the Azande, witchcraft is considered to be a major danger. They believe that witchcraft can be inherited and that a person can be a witch, causing others harm, without realising her or his influence. Because of this danger, effective means of diagnosing witchcraft are, for them, vital. One method is through the use of an oracle. Several kinds of oracles are explored in the film, the most important being benge, a poison which is fed to baby chickens. The chick’s death or survival provides the oracle’s answer. Azande also use benge to judge other evidence in a court before a chief.

Anthropologists have long argued about the nature and significance of beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery and, more generally, about the similarities and differences between `traditional’ thought and Western science. This film treads a delicate path, exploring an explanation of reality incomprehensible to a majority of Westerners and, at the same time, trying to portray the Azande as a clear-thinking, and almost familiar group of people. In this aim the film succeeds by creating a tension whereby the oracle’s answers are important to the viewers because they have become involved and are forming their own opinions about the guilt or innocence of the defendants.

Zande is not a static society and much has changed since Evans-Pritchard’s original fieldwork. The area filmed is influenced by Catholicism; people are Christian, but the church cannot give answers to many of the questions of the Azande people. The older people see their children abandoning traditional moral and other values. For this schism, the older people seem to blame the government more than the church as the church teaches a value system consonant with the traditional one. Yet, alongside the Christian influence and changes among the younger generation, the power of beliefs in witchcraft and oracles remains. If Singer wanted to give support to Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography, he has done so with Witchcraft among the Azande.

Another documentary which centres on the work of Evans-Pritchard below.

Auction results: Sotheby’s, Paris, 11 December 2013

Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

With a total result of € 3,2 million (only taking in consideration the African art and including the buyer’s premium) against a combined low and high estimate of € 2,1 & € 3 million, Sotheby’s Paris African art sale did very well. From the 72 African lots, 47 (or 65 %) were sold, that’s 5% more than Christie’s yesterday. Though Sotheby’s thus roughly sold the same percentage objects as Christie’s, the difference in quality (and value) was of course quite obvious. 7 lots were sold under the low estimate, 22 between the low and high estimate and 18 above the high estimate. Note that excluding the premium, a lot more items would be listed as sold under the low estimate – after all, these estimates are based on the hammer price (as explained in my previous post). 25 objects (35%) failed to find a buyer. Again, increasing number of objects are selling below their estimates, or not selling at all. Two African lots were withdrawn: the legged Dan stool (lot 38) and the seated Teke figure (lot 96).

The top lot was the Fang figure (est. € 500K-700K), which sold at € 1,44 million (incl. premium) – almost as much as the whole Christie’s auction the previous day. Another important object, the Guillaume Kota-Shamaye reliquary figure performed as expected at € 530K (est. € 150K-200K). In 1965 it was sold at auction for FF 9K, which after inflation and conversion is € 11,5K now – a perfect example how the prices of African art (at least the top segment) have sky-rocketed.

A curious suprise was the Fon recade, estimated already quite high at € 4K-6K, it sold for € 16K. Bidding on the anthromorphic Dan spoon (est. € 70K-100K) started at the low reserve price of € 28K, but even then failed to attract a bid. The previously discussed Luluwa figure (lot 87) not suprisingly also failed to sell.

A personal favourite was the ivory St. Anthony, selling at € 70K (est. € 30K-40K); it doesn’t get better than this. On the other hand, the Guro zamble mask didn’t even attract a single bid at € 4,5K – notwithstanding that especially in profile this was a wonderful mask. The sale’s bargain was a powerful, small Zande figure, which sold for a mere € 24K. Personally, I thought it was the winner of the sale. During the preview, the 19,5 cm figure was, even at a 10 meter distance, still radiating power. Published by Burssens and collected between 1925 and 1940, this ancient statue definitely deserved more.

Sleeper of the month – a Mangbetu harp

Image courtesy of De Zwaan.

Image courtesy of De Zwaan.

Earlier this month the Amsterdam auctionhouse De Zwaan sold a private collection of African art. Lot 3639 was an anthropomorphic harp of the Mangbetu region, estimated € 300-400. It sold for € 34,000 (excluding the buyer’s premium), that’s more than 100 times the lower estimate ! De Zwaan didn’t know this same harp was sold by Christie’s, London on 25 July 1978 (lot 148) – for £ 360. The resonance box of this harp features two figures; a rare and unique detail. I have never seen a similar footrest (?) at the end. Most likely, the buyer still possessed more information justifying this high price.

UPDATE: one day after this post, the buyer presented himself to me in Brussels; he did not had any additional information but was extremely delighted with the acquisition.

It’s impossible to attribute this harp with absolute certainty to the Mangbetu. Cultural exchanges were common througout the region and musical instruments clearly spread from one group to another as a result of migrations, cultural assimilation, borrowing, and exchange. We can be quite certain that harps were introduced into the area where the Mangbetu live by two different groups: the Bantu speakers, who came from the west during the last millenium, and the Ubangian speakers, who came from the northwest in the last two centuries.

Mangbetu harps (domu) have been considered in depth as art objects, but little is known of their musical uses (there even don’t exist recordings of Mangbetu harp music). They evidently appeared among the Mangbetu sometime after the mid-1870s and reached a peak of popularity during the early colonial period. Beautiful harps decorated with carved heads at the ends of their bows were made in the area at that time. The custom of carving human heads on harps was widespread among the Azande and Barambo in the north, but Schweinfurth asserted that the Mangbetu had no stringed instruments of any kind (1874, 2:117). After the turn of the century, however, many of these instruments were made with carved heads representing the elongated Mangbetu style. These harps may have been introduced into the region of the Mangbetu kingdoms after the time of Schweinfurth’s visit. Hutereau and Lang both claimed that the Meje and the Mangbetu adopted the harp from the Azande (Hutereau 1912; Lang fieldnote 2105). Many of these instruments were collected by Lang and others between 1910 and 1915.

Despite the claims of Hutereau and Lang, linguistic evidence suggests that the harp may have been introduced from the south. The Mangbetu use the Bantu name domu for the harp. Harps may have been first introduced and used south of the Uele by the Mangbele (now assimilated to the Mangbetu but originally a Bantu group) and the Matchaga. Quite probably some Mangbetu groups, most likely the Mangbele, and other Bantu groups such as the Budu had at first a simple version of the instrument and then modified it in the style of the Ubangian speakers to the north. The carving of elongated heads on the harps is most probably an extension of a northern tradition.

The Mangbetu harp had five strings, reflecting the traditional pentatonic tuning system and commonly of plant fiber (more specific the midribs of oil palm leaves). The tuning pegs of the Mangbetu harp were on the player’s right (if the instrument was held with the carved figure facing the player), whereas the Zande type (kundi) has its pegs on the opposite side. Resonators are usually of an oval or hourglass shape. There is considerable variation in the angle of neck attachment and in the curvature of the bow. Often the conjunction between the neck and body is wrapped with cord. The carved figure forms the entire neck of some the more elaborately decorated instruments. Nearly all those harps cataloged as Mangbetu in the American Museum of Natural History collection have anthromorphic carving. Some of the older Mangbetu today claim that the heads on the harps represented Queen Nenzima and King Yangala, and that after their deaths the custom of carving them gradually declined. Many harps produced in the first quarter of the 20th century had full figures – male of female – carved into their bows. Many types of material were incorporated into the carved forms. The bows, of various lengths, were made of wood or ivory. A variety of animal skins was used to cover the resonators, including pangolin scales, okapi and leopard pelts, and the skins of monitors and several kinds of snake. Combinations of the above materials, along with the anthropomorphic bows, created visually striking instruments.

Schweinfurth gave a detailed description about the importance of music in the local daily life: ‘Apart from the special characteristics that distinguish them, more or less pronounced marks of race that pick out the different groups of the human family, the Niam-Niams are men of the same nature as others; they have the same passions, the same joys, the same pains as us. I have exchanged any number of jokes with them, I have taken part in their childish games, accompanied by the sound of their drums or mandolins, and I have found in them the same gaiety and verve found elsewhere.’ & ‘But the Niam-Niams have other pleasures; they have an instinctive love of art, and owe to it more elevated pleasures. Passionate about music, they extract from their mandolins sounds which resonate in the deepest fibers of their being and which thrown them into genuine intoxication. The concerts they offer themselves are of unimaginable lengths. Piaggia has said that a Niam-Niam would play his instrument for twenty-four hours without leaving it for a second, forgetting to eat or drink; and even though I know well this people’s appetite, I believe Piaggia was right. Their favorite instrument is related at once to the harp and mandolin. It resembles the former by the disposition of its strings and the latter by the form of the body. Built precisely according to the laws of acoustics, the soundboard has two openings. The strings, solidly held by pegs, are sometimes made of vegetable fibers, sometimes of giraffe tail-hair. As for the music played on these mandolins, it is highly monotonous; it would be difficult to discern in it the slightest semblance of melody. It is never more than an accompaniment to a recitation, sung in a plaintive (even whining) tone, and of a decidedly nasal timbre. I have many times seen friends going arm in arm playing this way, beating time with their heads, and plunging each other into a profound ecstasy.’ (1874:210 & 222-223)

An Azande playing a harp. Photographed by Herbert Lang in Bafuka’s village, March 1913. (Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History, #224095)

An Azande playing a harp. Photographed by Herbert Lang in Bafuka’s village, March 1913. (Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History, #224095)

BRAFA 2014

Brafa 2014

 

From 25 January until 2 February 2014, the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) will be the  guest of honour at the BRAFA (Brussels Antiques and Art Fair). Closing on 2 December 2013, the RMCA, will exhibit around fifty items, some of which have hitherto not been seen, under the title Singular Collections. A selection of themes is illustrated by items from their collection – objects that may not necessarily be the most well-known, but whose plastic qualities impress, surprise, or move the viewer because of their singularity, their rarity, and their past.

During the 59th BRAFA, eight Tribal Art galleries are also present: Claes (Brussels), Dulon (Paris), Ferrandin (Paris), Germain (Montreal), de Monbrison (Paris), Schlag (Brussels), Schoffel (Brussels) and Schoffel-Valluet (Paris).

Zande Tervuren Brafa

African art at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Protective fertility figure (yanda)  Zande people, Democratic Republic of the Congo  Late 19th – early 20th century  Wood  H (without stand): 24.5; W (without stand): 9.5 cm  Gift of Lawrence Gussman, Scarsdale, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum, in memory of Dr. Albert Schweitzer  Accession number: B98.0061. Courtesty of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Protective figure (yanda). Zande people, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wood. H: 24.5 cm. Gift of Lawrence Gussman, Scarsdale, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum, in memory of Dr. Albert Schweitzer. (#B98.0061) Courtesty of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Often forgotten, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem holds an interesting collection of African art. It received its first objects from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in the 1950s. The bulk of Precolumbian, African, Oceanic, and North American art was donated by major collectors in the late seventies (for example Lawrence Gussman, Gaston T. de Havenon, Daniel Solomon and others). Over the years many more unique and rare individual pieces were given, as were whole collections, which came from the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Amrouche, de Monbrison, Entwistle, Kerchache, Guimiot – they all donated objects. As the collection grew, the department experienced a number of major changes in concept, eventually crystallizing into the Department for the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. The department’s steadily growing collection today numbers over 6,500 objects from diverse cultural traditions, spanning four continents and four millennia.

The online collection shows 365 objects from Africa; browse them here.

171 objects are also featured in Douglas Newton’s book African and Oceanic Art in Jerusalem.

Seated figure. Jenne-Jeno area, Mali. 1000-1300 CE. Terracotta. H: 41 cm. Gift of Philippe Guimiot, Brussels (# B83.0754) Courtesy The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Seated figure. Jenne-Jeno area, Mali. 1000-1300 CE. Terracotta. H: 41 cm. Gift of Philippe Guimiot, Brussels (# B83.0754) Courtesy The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Stool. Pende people, Democratic Republic of the Congo. ca. late 19th century-early 20th century. Wood. H: 23.5 cm; Diam: 23.5 cm. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Heller, Woodmere, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum (#B82.0254). Image courtesy of The Israel Museum.

Stool. Pende people, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wood. H: 23.5 cm; Diam: 23.5 cm. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Heller, Woodmere, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum (#B82.0254). Courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Female figure. Dan people, Cote d'Ivoire  Late 19th - early 20th century. Wood, leather, metal. H: 40 cm. Gift of Faith-dorian and Martin Wright, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum, in memory of Abraham Janoff. (# B92.1591) Courtesy Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Female figure. Dan, Ivory Coast. Wood, leather, metal. H: 40 cm. Gift of Faith-dorian and Martin Wright, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum, in memory of Abraham Janoff. (# B92.1591) Courtesy Israel Museum, Jerusalem.