Mangbetu harp, Democratic Republic of the Congo

, Early 20th century

Wood, hide, twine

35 1/2 x 7 in. (90 x 18 cm)


About this object

The carving of a human head that surmounts the neck of the harp shows the characteristic Mangbetu elongation that was considered a sign of aristocratic status and beauty. (Children’s heads were bound when they were young and the procedure is said to not have caused any harm.) The head appears to have its mouth open, possibly to show a person singing. The pegs for the strings are in the shape of human heads. The sound box on the harp is covered with animal skin, in this case probably lizard or snake.

The musician would have held the neck of the harp in his left hand, pointing away from him, and with the sound box in his lap. The musician would have played the harp as he sang. The harp was just one of the instruments valued by the Mangbetu. The king’s orchestra included ivory trumpets, slit drums, rattles and kettle drums. The American Museum of Natural History has a recording of Mangbetu harp music in its archives that was made during an AMNH expedition to the region between 1908 and 1914.

The Mangbetu live in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an area that shares a border with Sudan. By the mid-19th century, one clan among the Mangbetu had consolidated their authority over the others and created a centralized kingdom that was at the peak of its power in approximately the 1870s. It was a hierarchical society with an aristocratic class and complex court structure. The royal family possessed large numbers of objects such as finely-made stools, weapons and musical instruments, which the Mangbetu valued for their beauty and craftsmanship.

According to Enid Schildkrout, reports by the first Europeans from the region in the 1870s described their fascination with the opulent life of the court and their appreciation of the beauty of Mangbetu objects. But these early reports did not mention human representation on Mangbetu art, though it was found among the art of neighboring peoples. By the early 20th century, however, Mangbetu artists were known for their modeling of the human form on pots, knives handles, musical instruments and other objects.

These representations included the bound heads, body scarification and painting that were then favored among Mangbetu royalty. Mangbetu elders told researchers that the carvings of human heads on harps represented Mangbetu royalty, especially Queen Nenzima, who was the younger sister of a king and the wife of another. She was known as the most powerful person in the court in the early 1900s.

Historians speculate that during this early colonial period that brought intense upheaval, conflict and confrontation between Belgians and people of the Congo, Mangbetu used art to express and make a statement about their identity and history. Schildkrout and others point out that Europeans commissioned art and may have asked for Mangbetu artists to include the human form.

Over time, it seems that the aesthetic value of the harps may have taken precedence over their use as musical instruments. Some examples of harps from the later 1900s were possibly more aesthetically pleasing, but they were no longer functional. The sound boxes had become flattened and the pegs could not be turned. They may have been used as trade items to exchange for desirable goods from other countries.

National Music Museum. Arched Harp (Donnu) by Mangbetu People Uele River Region, Belgian Congo, ca. 1910-1920. University of South Dakota.

The University of Iowa. “Archiving Art & Life in Africa”. Stanley museum of art.

Dr. Christa Clarke. “Figurative Harp (Domu) (Mangbetu peoples).” Art of Africa: Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006*.*

Gordy Slack*. “*American Museum Congo Expedition”. American Museum of Natural History.

African reflections II: king's orchestra, 1990, EXH.003 AV-194. African reflections : art from northeastern Zaire, EXH.003. Research Library Special Collections. Accessed May 3, 2023.

Enid Schildkrout. “The Spectacle of Africa through the Lens of Herbert Lang: Belgian Congo Photographs 1909-1915.” African Arts 24, no. 4 (October 1991), Special Issue: Historical Photographs of Africa (October 1991): 70-85, 100.