This jewelry box is part of the colonial history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Mangbetu royal court—founded in the 18th century—controlled regional trade and commanded significant wealth. In 1870, Europeans began visiting the court seeking introductions to trading partners further south. By 1885, these relationships took a political turn when European statesmen assembled in Berlin—without including African leaders—to divide Africa and its resources between them. After the conference, Belgium’s king sent soldiers to occupy the Mangbetu kingdom and assert his claim.
Europeans began collecting Mangbetu art in the 1870s, which was given as diplomatic gifts or sold to visiting tradesmen and soldiers. The unknown artist who carved this box was not only skilled with an adze, or carving tool, but also a savvy businessman who understood his audience: while Mangbetu courtiers preferred boxes with geometric bases, Europeans preferred figurative sculptures. This piece would have been particularly attractive to European consumers, who held a prurient fascination for courtly Mangbetu hairstyles that accentuated the high foreheads of the nobility, shaped through cloth bindings during infancy. This box, and postcards popular in the same period, highlights the figure’s graceful forehead. Yet Europeans also used this imagery to assert their superiority to other races. In an age of pseudo-sciences like Social Darwinism and phrenology, they claimed that the Mangbetu courtiers were “noble savages,” not political leaders with legitimate claims to territory now colonized by Europeans.
This box and pieces like it were purchased in the 19th century by ethnographic museums eager to justify colonization by exhibiting the “primitive” nature of occupied cultures—a reminder of how museums once shaped racist views that linger today.
Above: Jewelry box, Mangbetu region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1890s. Wood, bark, vegetable fiber. Gift of William E. and Bertha L. Teel. 1992.408
Update January 25, 2017 10:56 pm
Among the 796 likes and individual comments on this Instagram post, here are some highlights:
tali.levy67 I want this!!! Gorgeous.
phillippapitts Thank you for sharing this object and this story!
Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch is Teel Curator of African and Oceanic Art.