Five things one should know about the Mangbetu

The statuary of the Mangbetu tribe is outstanding if only from the questions they generate, and their unique looks, incorporating full body scarification, and aspects of head elongation. On a personal note Collecting African Tribal Art goes beyond simply hoarding, and trading, In this case, the piece below led to research which introduced me to the music of Nina Simone, her life story, her contribution to the civil rights movement, and her commitment to developing her musical ability.

Mangbetu Statuary (AplusAfricanArt.com)

Location

The Mangbetu are located in the northeast area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Head Elongation

The Mangbetu had a distinctive look and this was partly due to their elongated heads. At birth the heads of  babies’  were tightly wrapped with cloth in order to give their heads the streamlined look. The practice began dying out in the 1950s with the arrival of more Europeans and westernization. Because of this distinctive look, it is easy to recognize Mangbetu figures in African art. [1] Cranial deformation may have played a key role in Egyptian and Mayan societies. Queen Nefertiti is often depicted with what may be an elongated skull, as is King Tutankhamen.

Nina Simone Rocked the Mangbetu Hairstyle [3]

Mangbetu Hairstyle 

”] Language 

The Mangbetu language is phonetically distinct from other languages in that it possesses both a voiced and a voiceless bilabial trill. [4]

Music

The Mangbetu have a good reputation for the quality of their art, and music (see for example the Mangbetu harp).

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/Mangbetu_people

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_cranial_deformation

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nina_Simone

[E1] http://lamutamu.com/?s=mangbetu

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mangbetu_people

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Yoruba Scarification

In collecting tribal African art one eventually stumbles across the huge diversity and complexity of the Nigerian genre. The use of Scarification intersects religious, cultural, social, aesthetic, and legal boundaries.

“Originally used medicinally and to distinguish friend from foe in times of war, the custom offers many Nigerians a sense of continuity in a rapidly changing world.” The practice is declining, and is now restricted to rural areas. “The origin of the practice — to identify people in the tribal wars — is no longer relevant, and the people who identify it with cultural beliefs haven’t had so much contact with formal education or urbanization.”[1]

E1 Yoruba Scarification[2]

The charts below show Nigerian scarification patterns and their associated locales.

E2 Scarification Chart

Scarification marks are also commonly used with tribal masks and statues. For example, the cult of Shango started in Oyo-Ile. The marks shown on the Shango dance wand are the marks of “the older line of Bashorun” in Oyo and are called meta aagberi (Abraham 1958:300)[3].

E3 Shango Dance Wand

E4 Nigerian Regions and Cities

E5 Offering Bowl – Olumeye Figure

Olumeye figures typically show Yoruba facial scarification patterns. “They are differentiated by the stylization of the hair, the design of the ear, and the elaborate patterns incised on the back of the arms of the bride, as well as on the bowl she holds.”[4]


[3] Yoruba – Sculpture of West Africa. Fagg et al, p 74.

[4] Yoruba – Sculpture of West Africa. Fagg et al, p 88.

Worthless …… as in “that’s worthless”!!

As a minority I’ve had the extreme pleasure of taking umbrage (always liked that phrase) at the following comments :

1)   He/she will never amount to anything,

2)   That car is worthless…. you couldn’t get a dollar for it,

3)   That African Art is worthless junk!!

The question of how much we would pay to save another life is an interesting one. At the low end, of course that would be zero.  If we knew that someone was dying from hunger, lack of water, or medication, in some part of the world we would not necessarily contribute a one-time sum of $5, nor commit to a monthly contribution of the same. An intermediate cost can be figured out using insurance and healthcare realities, and at the high end, one would sacrifice their own life to save another – still this would not address the true worth of the individual to his family, society, and loving friends.

E1 : Soweto Riots - Death of 12 yr old Hector Pieterson, showing his 17yr old sister Antoinette alongside., 1976 (Sam Nzima photo)

We tend to (are conditioned to) frame the concept of worth in terms of what we can get on the open market, or future earnings potential. In economic or financial terms this would be referred to as a “fair market value”.  The fact though is that this differs tremendously from the “replacement value”, which is more subjective and arguably more suited to items or products of a more unique nature, or items filling a pressing need (score one for the 1998 Jetta).

The kicker is that a human being is the single most complex entity on the planet. Nothing we can come up with can compare. Not the ipad, nor a supercomputer, nor the most sophisticated combination of gems and precious metals. This is the curse of supply and demand (S&D). With six (6.9) billion bodies (and counting), our worth is not what it used to be.  With quaint phrases such as “collateral damage”, and “the end justifies the means”, we have rationalized our worth to the point where society has been desensitized to the value and uniqueness of human life, and the gift of thought.

Yoruba Offering Bowl - Nigeria

Likewise African Art  has much the tougher battle. In an age where we celebrate Harry Potter, vampires, ghost whisperers, and the like, Tribal African Art still suffers from historical condemnation (in the mainstream), and religious ostracizing. Here too the issue of worth defined by the S&D basis is paramount, but similarly there are other issues of historical style, and culture that should be taken into account. The long and short is that if one is in the market for a profit, then one may be totally forgiven for referring to African Art as worthless (on some arbitrary personal scale), but if one recognizes that each piece may carry some cultural significance or vestige of tribal African history, then maybe not so much.

 

E1 : http://www.awesomestories.com/assets/soweto-uprising-hector-pieterson

The African Tribal Art of Facial Scarification

Scarification is the practice of permanently marking the skin by cutting it, and is widely practised in Africa. The main purpose of African scarification is to enhance a person’s beauty, but scars can also indicate bravery, show group identity, or mark stages in a person’s life. [1] Collecting African Tribal Art through masks, and headdresses is an easy way to examine the cultural differences, and norms of African Tribes.

Guro Mask : Simple Scarification Pattern

Makonde

 The Makonde used body scarification in an effort to prevent their abduction into slavery. Although not as popular as before, scarification still finds a place in the culture, and craft of the tribe. A typical Lipico mask is worn on the top of the head partially covering the face and slanted up to enable the masquerader to see through the mouth area. These masks are used in initiation and circumcision ceremonies for boys as they move from adolescence to manhood. The masks may exhibit scarification, which is reflected in thick, symmetrical zigzag patterns across the face area.

Makonde Tribe : Lipico Mask

Tabwa

 The distinctive facial scarification consisting of a number of lines along the sides of the face and along the forehead, and abdomen were the means whereby Tabwa identified themselves to localities, and displayed social status. They are also a high form of body art or ornamentation. Elaborate and attractive patterns and designs were worked into the skin according to the Tabwa concept of ‘kulemba’ that reflect aesthetics, social membership, and the abstract idea of order upon the chaos of nature. It demonstrates that a person becomes a complete adult when they are properly inscribed with the appropriate scars. These patterns and designs are collectively known as ‘vindala’ and represent one’s advancement through life and within Tabwa society. Distinctive hairstyles among Tabwa men reflect status or membership in a hunter’s cult known as ‘buyange’, and requires some effort to braid, tie and decorate. [2]

Tabwa Tribe

Baule

Consider the marks on the Baule mask. The Senufo use three scars radiating from the edge of the mouth along the side of the face. The Senufo however are close neighbors of the Baule in the Ivory Coast.

Baule Tribe

At one time most slaves in the Baule territory were Senufo and because Baule people make this association, they use this type of scar to protect young children from harm; when a woman has had several children who have died for example this scar is given to her next child so that Death will not be attracted to it. [3]

[1] http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/pdf/scarification_web.pdf

[2] http://www.africadirect.com/productsdesc.php?ID=53842

[3] http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/pdf/scarification_web.pdf

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