Excerpted from African Reflections: Art from Northeastern Zaire,
Chapters 1 & 2, by Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim, AMNH and
University of Washington Press, 1990.
Early Ethnography in Northeastern Congo and the Making of the
Mid-nineteenth-century Italian, British, and German explorers in
search of the headwaters of the Nile, as well as subsequent military
expeditions into the troubled Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, had brought
back to Europe fantastic stories of a people known as the Niam-niam--supposedly
cannibals with tails. The stories were modified as Europeans encountered
actual Zande and Mangbetu people, but exaggeration, distortion,
and the elaboration of these fantasies continued well into the twentieth
century, if not to this day. Beginning with the first European encounter
with the Mangbetu--the meeting between the German botanist Georg
Schweinfurth and King Mbunza in 1870--the Mangbetu were stereotyped
in myth. Schweinfurth's florid account of the Mangbetu court in
1874 provided a model for subsequent descriptions, most of which
exaggerated the power of the rulers and the prevalence of cannibalism.
The dominant tone of European literature on Africa's and indeed
on the whole world --in the period of European expansion and colonization
was one of self-congratulatory comparison. By the middle of the
nineteenth century, with the exploration and colonization of the
African interior, Europeans began to justify colonialism with "scientific"
as well as moral comparisons. Theological and moral justifications
of Caucasian superiority were buttressed by a smattering of empirical
observations, and comparisons between races and cultures were made
according to a notion of evolutionary progress. By the turn of the
century these notions were translated into justifications for conquest
and colonial rule.
The Mangbetu myth is just one variation of generalized European
stereotypes of Africa. They inevitably were built upon fragmentary
bits of information that were incorporated into exotic tales through
exaggeration and romanticization. The resulting stereotypes were
characterized by ambivalence and Eurocentrism. In the case of the
Mangbetu, the myth consisted of exaggerated descriptions of court
life and of cannibalism, of high artistic achievement and abhorrent
yet tantalizing (to Europeans) social practices.
Eurocentric comparisons ranked African peoples along several dimensions:
one comparison concerned the relative progress of different societies
toward centralized government; another concerned artistic production;
and a third concerned morality. With respect to government, centralized
societies with strong authoritarian institutions were assumed to
be superior to non-centralized ones (they were also more comprehensible
and more easily incorporated into colonial systems). With respect
to esthetics, representational art--particularly anthropomorphic
ar--and symmetry were admired over nonrepresentational, abstract
expressions. And with respect to morality and religion, Europeans
ranked monogamy, monotheism, and patriarchy higher than polygamy,
animism, or matriarchy.
When they were applied to the peoples of what is now northeastern
Congo, such comparisons judged the Azande and Mangbetu superior
to their neighbors because they had developed greater political
centralization and stronger military capabilities. The Mangbetu
also gained respect among Europeans for their art. Their architecture,
pottery, and carving were admired for their complex design and use
of symmetry, supposedly symptomatic of a more ordered intelligence.
In the early years of colonialism, Mangbetu visual arts were praised
for their naturalistic representations of the human form. Their
dress exemplified the European vision of the exotic with its use
of animal skins, feathers, and decoration applied to the body itself.
Designations commonly applied to the Mangbetu were "artistes"
"the Parisians of Africa" "les elegants,"
and "les jouisseurs."
Although the Mangbetu were admired for their centralized government
and artistic achievement, most Europeans of the period denigrated
them for their reputed immorality. Tales of exotic, uncivilized,
and repulsive traits reinforced the barriers between Europeans and
Africans. Gruesome stories of brutality and savagery, when combined
with images of powerful kingdoms and fine art, titillated the Victorian
imagination. In the case of the Mangbetu, the clearest evidence
of savagery was not simply human sacrifice, common enough even in
the European past, but cannibalism. Reports of Mangbetu cannibalism
attracted particular attention because it was supposed not to be
a result of religious ritual (like the understandable, if unforgivable,
Aztec practices) but rather a result of a passionate taste for human
flesh. Cannibalism, which almost certainly only existed in very
restricted ritual contexts, became an obsession in the early colonial
literature on the Congo and provided the principal rationale for
missionary activity and colonization. The Mangbetu have heard of
these stereotypes and join freely in their elaboration. Even today
they recount tales of cannibalism among Africans; in pre-colonial
times, former enemies often described each other as cannibals, and
today many people claim that Europeans manifest the same tastes
in the Eucharist and even practice it covertly.
The Lang-Chapin expedition produced more in the way of collections
and subsequent publications than any other single expedition of
the period. Their expedition attempted to be rigorously scientific
in its methods of collection and description. Inevitably, though,
preconceptions of the period determined the questions asked, the
kinds of photographs taken, and the relationships between European
observers and the Africans they observed. On his return, Lang also
wrote articles for the general public revealing his own prejudices
and perpetuating elements of the Mangbetu myth.
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