The principal consumers of art in Mangbetu
society were the kings and chieftains. It was local
practice for royalty to be buried with their
precious objects so each new ruler had to
commission new items of display. This partly
reflects the insecurities of power in north-
eastern Zaire; the Mangbetu lived alongside
several other peoples and centralised control in
the area was not strong. This explains the need
to bolster authority with ostentatious display.
This striking anthropomorphic vessel draws on a
long-established tradition of producing
utilitarian terracotta wares. There are echoes of
such items in the rounded form that the head
rests upon. This has been embellished with a
band of moulded decoration of short straight
lines that radiate out from the base of the neck.
Mangbetu pots, sometimes referred to as palm
wine vessels, often display a striking variety of
surface patterns. This vessel is no exception; the
moulded decoration contrasts, for example, with
the delicately incised pattern defining the neck
area. The elongated skull reflects a local practice
whereby infants’ heads were bound with raffia.
The face itself is striking with narrow eyes, a
long straight nose and slightly parted lips. The
cheeks have four incised, petal shaped marks
symmetrically arranged either side of the nose.
Symmetry seems to have been valued by the
Mangbetu culture in its art and this fondness was
remarked upon by European visitors to the
region. The vessel in is excellent condition with
only minor damage to the foot of the base upon
which the rounded form rests. Although
equipped with a wide looped handle the function
of this item seems to have been ceremonial
rather than practical.