I haven’t often touched on the subject of authenticity and fakes on this blog in the past, yet the above picture was too interesting not to share. It is an image of a “Mangbetu” vessel photographed by Lorenz Homberger fourteen years ago in Machutvi, Bamoum province, Cameroon. While this type of vessels originally was created a century ago in Northern Congo, this well-executed example was made by the Bamum potter Kotu Idrissou Mache! The potter was transparant enough to reveal the source of his work: a black&white picture copied from an old publication (which I was unable to identify). It is impressive to discover that such a small image was sufficient to create this elaborate copy – nonetheless, it explains why many such works often show mistakes in areas of which the craftsman did not have a picture (for example, the top of the head). Unfortunately the potter picked a later a-typical Mangbetu vessel as a model, with an European-style hat. Additionally, most of those original Mangbetu anthropomorphic vessels were already created to be sold to Western visitors – without having any local use, as described in “African Reflections” (Schildkrout, 1990). If the potter would have had a bit more market intel, he probably would have picked a different object. Yet, it is fascinating to study how these workshops in Cameroon respond to the demands of the art market. Caveat emptor!
One often hears the claim that all major African works of art are known by now. But we Belgians (and the French too of course) know better. Every now and then something major pops out of nowhere, and today was such a day again. The small Brussels auction house Beguinage sold a previously unknown Mangbetu harp with an anthropomorphic column for a small fortune: it was hammered down for € 300,000 (so ca. € 360,000 with costs), selling to a French dealer (a Belgian colleague being the underbidder). Once again a clear prove that it doesn’t matter how small or obscure the sale is, if it’s good it gets noticed. Note that is has been a while since I posted about sleepers at auction..
Coming back to this harp, Georg August Schweinfurth gave a beautiful description about the importance of music in the local daily life when he visited the Zande and Mangbetu region between 1867 and 1871:
‘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.’ (“Au Coeur de l’Afrique. Trois ans de voyages et d’aventures dans les régions inexplorées de L’Afrique Centrale (1868-1871)”, Le Tour Du Monde, Nouveau Journal des Voyages, Vol. 28, 1874: p. 210)
‘But the Niam-Niamshave 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.’ (op. cit., 1874: pp. 222-223)
Unfortunately there don’t exist recordings of Mangbetu harp music.
UPDATE: Amyas Naegele was kind enough to share this short vintage recording of this type of harp:
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.
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)
Mangbetu daggers (sape or sapi) were used by both men and women with or without sheath. Those without a scabbard were generally kept near the house and used by women though men may have worn them in the belt. As a rule men carried these knives in nearly sewn scabbards of elephant hair, pigskin, or antelope-skin. The men wore these knives on their back hanging down from their belt, the handle downward, the point upward. The knife was retained in his scabbard through the pressure created by the tin liners of the sheath. Herbert Lang’s field notes confirm that in his time many of these daggers were created to demonstrate wealth and status. All important men wore these beautifully worked knives, that were both utilitarian items and prestigious ornaments.
Above two knives (one with a wooden handle, one with an ivory handle), temporarily reunited for this picture, belonging to a rare type with the lower part of the blade in the form of an abstract anthropomorphic figure.
Since a couple of years more and more museums are making their collections available online. The Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren (holding 180,000 ethnographic objects), is following this trend and has been slowly but steady adding new objects to their ever growing online database. If you are researching a Congolese object, it proves to be an indispensable tool to find related examples. Through the years, I have made some amazing finds while doing research on a specific object; for example the amazing Kuba figure illustrated above (clearly influenced by the Luluwa).
You can search the database here. Note that the search query ‘figure’ most often gives no result, try ‘figurine’ or even better ‘beeld’ or ‘statue’. Unfortunately not much contextual information is provided, though the acquisition date can of course always serve as a terminus ante quem.
Also noteworthy are the several featured collections focusing on a specific theme, such as drums from Sub-Saharan Africa, stone grave statues from Lower Congo and Ovimbundu sculpture. Interesting sets of field-photos include photographs of the expedition of Charles Lemaire (1898-1900), photographs of the expedition of Armand Hutereau and the ethnographic field photographs of Auguste Bal. For the full list of featured collections click here.
Personally, I was very happy to find a Mangbetu knife similar to the one I recently acquired (see here), purchased by the museum from Father A. Leysbeth in 1959.
A new addition to my private collection, a Mangbetu knife with an ivory handle (height: 24cm). Acquired from Bruno Frey, it belongs to a rare type with the lower part of the blade in the form of an abstract anthropomorphic figure – I find it absolutely fantastic.