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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Mangbetu Terracotta Vessel in the Form of an Anteater
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Mangbetu Terracotta Vessel in the Form of an Anteater - DV.011 (LSO)
Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 11.5" (29.2cm) high x 16.25" (41.3cm) wide x 27" (68.6cm) depth
Collection: African Art
Style: Mangbetu
Medium: Terracotta

Location: United States
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This unusual vessel depicting an anteater has been attributed to the Mangbetu group. Zoomorphic vessels are more uncommon than anthropomorphic variants, and anteaters are especially unusual. The vessel is the same shape as the animal’s body, with apertures to facilitate filling and/or pouring. The face is elongated with a wide nose and raised almond eyes. The claws are long and well-rendered. There is no specific data about the significance of anteaters in Mangbetu art, but the practical yet highly decorated nature of the piece indicates that it was neither solely an everyday nor ritual item. The whole piece has a dull glossy patina from age and usage.

The Mangbetu moved to the Congo region from Sudan in the 1700s, and live in societies that revolve around a court system. They are particularly renowned for their professional musicians, and also for their extravagant dancing and ceremonial pageantry. Their artworks were produced for the royal court families, and ranged from architecture to objects of religious/spiritual significance and secular items decorated with pleasing motifs and designs.

Mangbetu art is perhaps most recognizable for the inverted-cone coiffures of the (usually female) figures that tend to adorn it. This is seen in the rare wooden figures, as well as in ceramics. The coiffure – exaggerated by cranial deformation during infancy – was worn by women until the 1950s. Most of the pieces found their way to the royal courts. Kings were originally believed to be semi-divine, able to control natural resources using magical objects such as leopard parts. Mangbetu resistance to European rule had serious socioeconomic repercussions, but by the time that the European hold on the area had solidified, the Mangbetu were in the habit of trading and exchanging prestige goods – notably ornate ceramics – between chiefly courts and to colonials.

The role of these pieces is uncertain. The Mangbetu creator god is named Noro (also Kilima), but there is little sculptural abstraction in Mangbetu art that hints at an aim beyond the representational, or the secular decorative. They may also represent ancestors, which the kings usually command be revered. It is possible that the decorations on such pieces are designed to repel the negative effects of ‘Likundu’ – evil spirits – or witchery, which is a major concern in Mangbetu society.

It is certainly true that this piece is not a secular object, or at least not purely so. The care with which it has been conceived and executed suggests that it was a significant object in the eyes of the contemporary population, and that it held an important place in some religious or ritual context.

This is an attractive piece of African art.

- (DV.011 (LSO))


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