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Mangbetu horn


This horn entered the mim in the summer of 1983. According to Émile Deletaille, the Brussels dealer of ethnographic art who sold the instrument to the museum, the horn was quite old, most likely dating from the beginning of the 20th century, and prestigious. Fine figurative drawings, 'extremely naïve, although full of humour', were engraved on the body.

The maker carved out the horn from an elephant tusk: he scraped down a considerable amount of ivory to have a straight, small instrument and to keep the mouthpiece and the decorative head topping the horn thicker. The rim of the bell is paper-thin.

The instrument was produced by the Mangbetu, a powerful Bantu population who lived in the Uele River region in the North East of the current Democratic Republic of Congo. Ivory horns were crucial attributes in Mangbetu court life. Part of the chieftain's regalia, the nambrose (namburuse) or nekpanzi, as they seem to have been called in the region, were made solely on his command. Symbolizing his power and leadership, they served as signal instruments, announcing his arrival and departure, as well as his war victories, and were blown when visiting neighbouring chiefs. They also featured in the court orchestra, together with wooden slit drums, kettle drums, metal bells and rattles. They were played in pairs during court ceremonies celebrating the king, and during court dances including those in which the king himself danced, in order to show his skills, as good dancing equalled intelligence and ability to rule. Horns also served as diplomatic gifts representing the wealth of the tribe, and establishing relationships with colleague chiefs - the chief thus commissioned high-status instruments that were not necessarily made to be played on.

The making of the horns was entrusted exclusively to the smiths, a protected, rich and feared caste. They had the metal tools required to carve the horn. Gaetano Casati, Italian cartographer, travelling through the region at the beginning of the 1880s, saw such carved ivory objects and wrote afterwards:

The elegance of all these objects might suggest the idea that the tools used are perfect or nearly so; but it is astonishing to see how admirably these people can carry out the ideas which their inventive minds conceive, with such imperfect and primitive means (Ten Years in Equatoria, 1891, i.125).

Initial rough shaping of the horn was done with an axe and further carving with an adze. For the finer details a knife with a long handle and small blade was used. Finally, the ivory surface was smoothed with a moistened leaf with a sandpaper-like surface. Images of the adze and the knife used for the carving have been engraved on the mim's example. It could take more than two months to finish a horn.

These large court horns were held in a horizontal position when played, and blowing them required a considerable physical effort. Ivory horns were played in ensembles of two or more, using the hoquetus practice. Each horn played a single note, the polyphony heard thus being the result of each individual musician tuning in to the others. When the German explorer Georg Schweinfurth visited king Mbunza's court in 1870, he reported:

A couple of horn blowers stepped forward, and proceeded to execute solos upon their instruments. These men were advanced proficients in their art, and brought forth sounds of such power, compass, and flexibility that they could be modulated from sounds like the roar of a hungry lion, or the trumpeting of an infuriated elephant, down to tones which might be compared to the sighing of the breeze or to a lover's whisper. One of them, whose ivory horn was so huge that he could scarcely hold it in a horizontal position, executed rapid passages and shakes with as much neatness and decision as though he were performing on a flute (Heart of Africa, 1874, ii.49-50).

Our Mangbetu horn arrived in the mim some 35 years ago, but must have been made more than a hundred years ago. Ivory horns such as this one, with engraved images on the body, started to circulate among Western collectors from around 1915, most probably due to the taste of one particular explorer.

Collecting objects of material culture in the Uele region began on a large scale in the 1890s, when the administration of Leopold II's Congo Free State reached the North East of the country. Since Schweinfurth had published about his expeditions to the region of the Mangbetu in the 1870s, Western collectors became fascinated by the extraordinary artistic production of this population. The illustrations in Schweinfurth's seminal Artes Africanae (1874) instigated 'colonial museums' in the Western world, newly founded at the very end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, to acquire pieces of the art ('craftsmanship') of the Mangbetu and neighbouring people in situ.

Herbert Lang, the Baltic-German leader of the Congo expedition organised by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, shipped almost 4,000 ethnographic objects to the museum between 1909 and 1915. Lieutenant Armand Hutereau, sent out by the Belgian Government to undertake an expedition to the North East of Congo, collected more than 10,000 objects for the Musée d'Afrique in Tervuren between February 1911 and June 1913. In 1907 about 800 pieces from the Uele region had been given to the AMNH by King Leopold II, who wished to promote his new country in the US and who later co-financed Lang's expedition. Enid Schildkrout, curator emerita of the AMNH who researched Lang's Congo expedition in depth, estimates that at least 20,000 objects left the region by 1915. Obviously this sudden Western interest in the material culture of a hitherto isolated region had impact on local production, not only on the quantity of artistic output, but also on the emergence of new artistic forms.

Before colonial contact the Mangbetu people did not have a tradition of anthropomorphic, figurative art. Their ivory horns were not adorned with sculpted heads and had no engraved drawings on their bells - it is telling that no anthropomorphic horn appeared in Schweinfurth's Artes Africanae. The increase of production of Mangbetu figurative art at the very end of the 19th century is to be linked to the demands of the Europeans who entered the region, as figurative art was highly esteemed in current Western aesthetics. Chiefs began to encourage carvers to add heads and figures on objects, a long-standing tradition among the neighbouring Azande. Mangbetu and Azande artists quickly started to integrate distinctive Mangbetu figurative forms into jars, knives, boxes, hairpins and horns. Objects featuring a wrapped and elongated head in particular became prestigious icons of 'typical' Mangbetu art, 'proving' that the Mangbetu were direct descendants of the classical Egyptians. Niangara, Poko and Rungu, towns created originally as colonial government posts grew into important production centres, lively cosmopolitan places where the presence of Europeans attracted Mangbetu and Azande artists.

Lang in particular became highly attracted to figurative art during his stay in the Uele region. Schildkrout relates how, unlike his colleague expeditor-collectors, the leader of the AMNH Congo expedition spent long periods at the same posts. In Niangara, Rungu and Poko he built up close relationships with local kings. Chiefs such as Okondo and Senza mediated between Lang and local artists and encouraged the latter to create the kind of anthropomorphic objects Lang admired. After a while Lang himself established direct relationships with particular artists and seems to have suggested to add drawings representing scenes from Mangbetu daily life. This is how ivory horns with figurative drawings on the bell came into being, a new virtuosic form of musical instruments conceived as art objects, and not particularly intended to be played on.

Between 1910 and 1915 a growing number of horns destined for export were made by local artists. Since neither sculpture nor drawing had any particular symbolic meaning for the Mangbetu, and since these horns had no specific ritual or spiritual significance, the makers saw no problem in producing them serially.

At least two artists became specialists in engraving on horns, boxes, jars and knives: Zaza [Saza] and Songo. Both were Azande artists living in Poko who regularly signed their production. It is not known whether many other artists became expert engravers as well. Clearly, the style of all the drawings is extremely similar, undoubtedly at least partly due to the fact that the artists were coached by the same patron, Herbert Lang.

The drawings represent stills from Mangbetu social and material life, informing about fauna and flora, local tools and habits, such as hairdressing, making instruments, eating, resting, working, hunting, quarrelling and fighting. They reveal a good deal about male-female relations, technology, politics, and relations with Europeans. The drawings on the mim's instrument, suggesting the hand of Zaza or Songo, include formulaic representations of two Mangbetu men and two Mangbetu women with the emblematic elongated heads and elegant fanlike coiffures, and depict two knives, an adze, a bird and a snake. In this way, Mangbetu artists offered distant Western museum visitors a view on their lives.

Obviously, not all engraved horns left for the AMNH. The mim's horn must have been made during or shortly after Lang's stay in the Mangbetu villages and was probably picked up by a European in Poko, Rungu or Niangara. These horns are still to be found in private collections and occasionally appear in auctions.

Apparently, with the demise of chief Okondo and the departure of Herbert Lang, no new artists took over the new art form. Ivory carving died out in the next decades and ivory horns were no longer in use. With the passing of the generation of Songo and Zaza, figurative Mangbetu art ceased to be produced by the 1930s. 'Once the system of colonial rule became firmly established, chiefs were less inclined to use art to win favour with colonial officials', Schildkrout writes (African Reflections, 259).

It is clear that the mim's Mangbetu horn was an export product for the new Western market, made after 1910 and no later than the 1930s. Its small and straight shape confirms its role as an instrument easily transportable to Europe. It is a so-called 'proto-tourist' instrument, created in an African-Western contact zone, 'contaminated' by European influence. Strikingly, among the more than 10,000 object collected by Hutereau and now in the Tervuren Africa museum, not one ivory horn has engraved images. Clearly Hutereau was on the lookout for objects of Congolese material culture not yet 'tainted' by European contact. Except for Lang, Western collectors required 'traditional, authentic and old' instruments- in answer to which Africans soon started to produce 'authentic' instruments.

The mim's horn is part of a 'limited-edition' series of instruments, stemming from an early colonial period, when African artists dialogued with Western collectors, and, conscious of their new audience, incorporated drawings on their objects as markers of their identity. The details of the pictographs show how Africans of the early 20th century wished to represent themselves to the white man.

Saskia Willaert


MIM Archives, invoice Émile Deletaille, 10-06-1983

'African Ethnographic Collection' on the website of the American Museum of National History, New York ( )

Burssens, Herman, Mangbetu. Afrikaanse hofkunst uit Belgische privé-verzamelingen, Brussels, Kredietbank, 1992

Casati, Gaetano, Ten Years in Equatoria and the Return with Emin Pasha, 2 vols., London, 1891

Couttenier, Maarten, Congo tentoongesteld. Een geschiedenis van de Belgische antropologie en het museum van Tervuren (1882-1925), Louvain, 2005

Demolin, Didier, Mangbetu-Zaire, notes LP, Paul Collaer, Centre ethnomusicologique, Royal Museum of Central Africa, ECPC03, Tervuren, 1985

Demolin, Didier, 'Music and Dance in Northeastern Zaire. Part 1: The Social Organization of Mangbetu Music', in Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim (ed.), African Reflections. Art from Northeastern Zaire, University of Washington Press, Seattle-London, 1990, 195-208

Jadinon, Rémy, 'Les instruments de musique en ivoire du Nord-Congo', in Marc Leo Felix (ed.), White Gold, Black Hands : Ivory Sculpture in Congo, vii, Heilunkiang, 2014, 158-243

Janssens, Édouard, Les Belges au Congo: notices biographiques, ii, Antwerp, 1911

Keim, Curtis A., 'Artes Africanae: the western discovery of 'Art' in northeastern Congo', The scramble for art in Central Africa, ed. Enid Schildkrout, Cambridge, 1998, 109-32

Laurenty, Jean-Sébastien, La systématique des aérophones de l'Afrique Centrale. Planches, Koninklijk Museum voor Midden-Afrika, Tervuren. Annalen 7, 1974

Miller, Thomas Ross, 'Music and Dance in Northeastern Zaire. Part 2: Collecting Culture: Musical Instruments and Musical Change', in Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim (ed.), African Reflections. Art from Northeastern Zaire, Seattle-London, 1990, 209-16

Miller, Thomas Ross, 'The Evidence of Instruments', Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 17/2 (1992): 49-60

Montagu, Jeremy, Horns and Trumpets of the World. An Illustrated Guide, Lanham, 2014

Schildkrout, Enid, and Curtis Keim, African Reflections. Art from Northeastern Zaire, Seattle - London, 1990

Schildkrout, Enid, and Curtis A. Keim, 'Objects and agendas: re-collecting the Congo', in Enid Schildkrout (ed.), The scramble for art in Central Africa, Cambridge, 1998, 1-36.

Schildkrout, Enid, 'Ivories in the Uele Region. Tradition and Innovation', Marc Leo Felix (ed.), White Gold, Black Hands. Ivory Sculpture in Congo, vii, Heilunkiang, 2014, 50-157

Schildkrout, Enid, 'Personal styles and disciplinary paradigms: Frederick Starr and Herbert Lang', in Enid Schildkrout (ed.), The scramble for art in Central Africa, Cambridge, 1998, 169-92

Schweinfurth, Georg, The Heart of Africa. Three Years' of Travels and Adventures in the Unexplored Regions of Central Africa from 1868 to 1871, 2 vols., New York, 1874

Schweinfurth, Georg, Artes Africanae. Illustrations and Descriptions of Productions of the Industrial Arts of Central African Tribes, Leipzig-London, 1875


1.      Horn 1983.033

2.      Copy of drawing of a cross section of an elephant task and the outline of a horn cut out from it (Notes analytiques sur les collections ethnographiques du Musée du Congo, Brussels, 1902, tome 1, fascicule 1, 93)

3.      Detail horn 1983.033: mouth piece

4.      'Saza, an Avongara expert in carving and engraving ivory, with his wife, a Makere, and an Azande man', Poko, ca. 1912. Photo: Herbert Lang. Image no. 111657, AMNH Library

5.      Plate from the court of king Mbunza, in Schweinfurth, The Heart of Africa, vol. 2, New York, 1874, facing p.74.: 'King Munza dancing before his wives'

6.      Plate from Schweinfurth, Artes Africanae, Leipzig- London: 'Niam-Niam [= Mangbetu]'

7.      Details of male and female figure on horn 1983.033

8.  Details of male and female figure on horn 1983.033

9.    Detail horn 1983.033: knife engraved on the bell of the horn

10.   Detail horn 1983.033: adze engraved on the bell of the horn

Sound examples

1.      'Dance Music from the court of Chief Senza', recorded by Armand Hutereau (between 1909 and 1912), in KMMA Archieven 1910 - 1960, Fonti musicali. Africa Museum, fmd 220, 2000. Track 3

2.      Horns playing in hoquetus: 'Welcoming music', Kumbolu, 10/07/1987, recorded by Didier Demolin, in Antholgoie de la musique congolaise, vol. 3. Musiques du pays des Mangbetu, Fonti Musicali. Musée royal de l'Afrique centrale, fmd 403, 2005. Track 9

Horn inv. 1983.033
Cross section of an elephant task and the outline of a horn cut out from it
Detail horn 1983.033: mouth piece
 'Saza, an Avongara expert in carving and engraving ivory', Poko, c1912
'King Munza dancing before his wives',  Schweinfurth, The Heart of Africa, 1874
'Niam-Niam [=Mangbetu]', Schweinfurth, Artes Africanae, Leipzig, 1875
Details of male and female figure on horn 1983.033
Details of male and female figure on horn 1983.033
Detail horn 1983.033: adze with knife engraved on the bell of the horn
Detail horn 1983.033: adze engraved on the bell of the horn