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Art Gallery the Eye and the Hand
Situation : Welcome » Famous collectors » Emil Torday
THE NEW CONGO COLLECTION

During the summer of 1912 the Museum acquired by purchase a collection of about two thousand 
specimens consisting of weapons, utensils, ornaments, clothing and images from a number of African 
tribes living in the Congo basin.  This collection was, for the most part, obtained from the natives by the 
well-known German traveler, Frobenius.    

in a way which served at least to show what a variety of artistic activities and  what a rich  culture  the in 
a way which served at least to show what a variety of artistic activities and  what a rich  culture  the 
native Congo peoples possess.     
native Congo peoples possess.     


Visitors  had  an  opportunity   of   admiring the wonderful carved wooden boxes and cups, the 
elaborately wrought iron-work,  the  curious variety of knives,  swords and spears,  the delicately 
decorated calabashes and the cloths, woven from native fibre, and embroidered in a variety of 
patterns.    In no other class of objects perhaps are the arts of savage peoples and the refinement of 
feeling which savages often display in the decoration even of articles of ordinary use, better illustrated 
than in the collections from the Congo.

Mr. E. Torday has lived for nine years among these Congo tribes, is familiar with their habits and has 
studied their ethnology. He was instrumental in procuring from the natives the wonderful Bushongo 
collection in the British Museum. Mr. Torday is now engaged at this Museum in cataloguing the Congo 
collections and the following article and photographs by him are of special interest in connection with 
these African exhibits.—EDITOR.
Text below was written by Emil Torday in the museum journal and photos were taken 
between 1900 and 1909.


The various specimens of the newly acquired African collection belong mostly to tribes inhabiting the 
Congo basin. It is quite impossible to describe in detail so great a number of unfamiliar objects, 
consequently a sketch of the natives' daily life will be attempted instead, leaving it to the reader to find 
out the role the different implements play in this. In the photographs which are shown herewith, a good 
idea may be derived of the appearance of the natives of the Congo, both young and old, their clothing 
and some of their occupations. In other photographs showing objects selected from the collection in the
Museum may be seen some of the native arts at their best.

Very young children are quite unclad and when they begin to dress, their costume is frequently identical
with that of their elders and is, in many cases, the same for both sexes. But while the dress is the same 
for boys and girls, it is curious to observe how, from an early age their toys and games, their 
occupations, their songs and dances are essentially different. For instance, boys and girls are in the 
babit of playing on a small flute, but whereas the boys play upon it with the mouth, the girls play it with 
their noses.
                            FIG.  13.—Bushongo woman, freshly cicatrised.

The characteristics of children vary according to the tribe. Thus the children of the Bashilele, who are 
agriculturists, are polite and shy, whereas the children of the Badjok, who are slave raiders and fighters,
are quite as bold and aggressive as their elders. I can well remember once photographing a little Badjok
girl a few minutes after she had tried to stab a boy who had inadvertently raised her anger.
Dresses are cheap in the Congo, for, where they are worn, they are scanty and the result of the 
husband's industry. The lack of dress is compensated by generous scarring of the skin; the illustrations, 
Figs. 13 and 14, will give an idea of the sufferings these poor victims of fashion undergo so as to outdo 
their best friend. But whereas in our country only women are supposed to submit with resignation to 
tortures for fashion's sake, in the Congo man cannot claim exemption. He too has frequently his skin 
scarred and on the whole it can be said that the men in the Congo are vainer than women. War has 
been known to result among the Southern Bambala because a chief claimed to be handsomer than the 
lord of the nearest tribe. The negroes have remarkably fine teeth and the efforts they
                              FIG.  14.—Nobunda woman with shaved head.

make to destroy them are quite astonishing. Some, like the Southern Bembala, file them into points, 
whereas the Baluba and other tribes knock the upper incisors out. The Akela, however, are the worst 
offenders; as soon as they grow up, all their front teeth are removed from both jaws. Girls have this 
operation performed just before they get married, and it is a noteworthy fact that, notwithstanding that 
this operation is performed in a very crude way, is extremely painful, and is followed by the swelling of 
the face, there are no spinsters known in the Akela country. Having all their front teeth removed, these 
people cannot bite off pieces of their food; so when they eat, they hold a small knife with the big toe and
cut their food upon it.  

The negro's hair lends itself in consequence of its woolly nature to all sorts of fantastic styles of 
hairdressing and the natives of the Congo make much of their opportunity. The Isambo lets the top 
grow as long as ever it can and then arranges it artistically round a wooden form so as to make it look 
like a cap; the two sides are carefully frizzled up in the shape of horns and the whole is dyed red with 
camwood powder. It takes many days to arrange such a coiffure and this is the raison d'etre of those 
curious neck rests so common all through Africa.
                                 FIG.  15.—Bapende men and boys dancing.

The hair must be protected from any contact so as not to be disturbed. Before pronouncing judgment 
on the folly of these people we ought to keep in mind that French ladies of the time of Louis XV also 
wore hairdresses that required weeks to erect. White powder or red powder, the difference is really not 
so great as we are tempted to imagine. At any rate there are tribes in the Congo like the Babunda, 
where only men wear big crops of hair, whereas the ladies shave their heads. The resemblance 
between the hairdress and the shape of the roof of their huts found among the Bapende is worth 
noticing. When these people go to a dance they often wear tiny hats made of beads. The Congolese 
does not as a rule associate with a hat the idea of protection against heat or cold; as long as it is pretty, 
it fulfils all that is required from it;   this will explain that in the Museum collection diadems of straw and 
bunches of feathers will be found labeled "head-gear."
FIG.  16.—The friction drum.
FIG.  17.—Babunda funeral ceremony.    (The corpse is in the hut.)
FIG.  18.—The Nyimi of Bushongo with some charms
FIG.   19.—Bushongo drinking cups in the Museum collection
FIG. 20.—Bushongo pigment boxes in the Museum collection.
The reputed laziness of the African will be found on close investigation to be nothing else than 
conservatism. The negro enjoys the work he is accustomed to do, and likes to do what his father did 
and do it in the same way. He is the same as conservative men all over the world.

The working of iron is one of his favorite occupations and we find chiefs and kings working as smiths.    
In the village the bellows are worked by boys who do it frequently for the fun of it, and the smith's shed 
is never empty.

His work done, the native enjoys a quiet smoke, and the different pipes used among the various tribes 
form a valuable part of the Museum collection. However, the greatest joy of the Congolese, as of all 
negroes, is music and dancing, and a look at the photograph shown in 
Fig. 15 cannot leave anybody in 
doubt as to whether they enjoy it or not. A dance may begin in the afternoon or in the evening, but you 
may be quite sure it will not stop before morning. Carriers, taking a moment's rest, having walked for 
twelve hours with fifty pounds on their backs will jump up at the sound of the tom-tom, drum or marimba
and join in the general merriment.

Some musical instruments are used only on special occasions. In 
Fig. 17 we see a Babunda funeral; 
the man in front plays a sort of rattle which consists of the stem of a palm leaf, hollowed, the edge of 
which has been cut out so as to resemble the teeth of a saw. Over this a broom of rigid rushes is 
rubbed; the sound obtained, if not pleasant, is certainly quaint. The friction drum (
Fig. 16) is played 
when boys are initiated into the state of manhood and in former times was (and possibly even now 
secretly is) associated with human sacrifice;   it is called alternately "the village leopard"  and "the lion."
FIG.  21.—Eakongo lady having her head shaved.
FIG.   22.—Bakongo woman and children.
FIG. 23.—Bapende hut
FIG. 24.—The Orkela have all their front teeth knocked out when they reach 
the age of marriage.
message to a distance of several miles. A chief always travels with his drummer and his messages 
message to a distance of several miles. A chief always travels with his drummer and his messages 
transmitted from village to village will keep him in constant contact with his home.
transmitted from village to village will keep him in constant contact with his home.


The artistic capacity of the African is displayed by no tribe to a greater extent than by the Bushongo. 

Fig. 18 shows the king of this country, who claims to be the 121st descendant in an unbroken line of 
rulers. He stood for the idea of national unity and greatness and when, by the arrival of the white man, 
the power was taken from him, the kingdom of Bushongo, which for centuries occupied in Central Africa
the same position that Rome of the Augustan period held in Europe, fell to pieces and its glory 
departed from it forever. Such is the price we exact from people who have never harmed us, for giving 
them a civilization which is sure to disagree with them and to lead to their extinction.

Since the principal part of the collection now exhibited in the Museum comes from that wonderful 
people, the Bushongo, I desire to say a word about the art of this tribe in particular. The Bushongo, or 
more correctly the Bashi-Bushongo (meaning "people of the country of the throwing knife") inhabit the 
district of the Belgian Congo bounded on the north and east by the Sankurn river, on the west by the 
Kasai. The name by which they are generally known to Europeans is Bakuba. This, however, is a 
foreign, Luba, term and is never applied by the Bushongo themselves; it means ' 'people of the 
thunderbolt." The Bushongo nation is composed of seventeen sub-tribes, most of which are 
represented by specimens in the collection now exhibited in the Museum. Besides these there are three
independent Bushongo nations; the Isambo, who revolted and made themselves independent in the 
seventeenth century, and the Bakonge and Bashilele, representing an earlier wave of immigration; the 
two latter may be considered as the primitive Bushongo.

The Bushongo are among the most skillful carvers of Africa. Speaking generally, the forms adopted by 
them are remarkable for the sense of proportion which they exhibit; hardly a single example can be 
found, especially among the older specimens, which is not graceful and harmonious in outline. A 
striking illustration of this statement may be seen in the drinking cups shown in 
Fig. 19 and in the 
beautiful pigment boxes 
Fig. 20. The same sense of proportion is found in their metal work. Next in 
interest comes ornamentation and this opens a subject which could be treated at almost any length 
owing to the variety of patterns and the universality of their application. The very skin of the female 
population does not escape what they consider embellishment. The 
horror vacui is a marked 
characteristic of the Bushongo and consequently all their utensils are covered with graceful designs. 
But though in some cases every square inch of an object is covered with ornamentation, it very rarely 
appears overloaded; the keen sense of proportion possessed by these Africans extends also to the 
covering of a definite space with appropriate ornamentation. The outlines are bold and certain and 
there is rarely any trace of weakness in them.

The ornamental designs of the Bushongo are borrowed from the natural world or from designs derived 
from textile art; the prevalence of textile patterns in their wood carving is remarkable and renders any 
separate classification of carved and woven designs impossible. Some decorations are taken directly 
from nature; chief among these is a representation of the human face. The most frequent however are 
the varieties of the design called Bambi (antelope). In one form it consists of an entire head and is 
constantly found as a detail on pipe-stems. Other forms of this pattern consist in the horn or the horns 
of the antelope, depicted singly, in pairs, or in groups of any number. Two reptiles are constantly 
appearing in Bushongo art, the tortoise and the iguana. The former is called Mayulu, and is sometimes 
found as an ornamental knob, or, more frequently, as a hexagonal design derived from the scales of 
the carapace of the tortoise. The iguana, Lebene, is usually found carved on drinking horns; sometimes
the complete animal is shown, but mostly the spurred forefeet, or even one foot alone, in a highly 
conventionalized form. The carving of horn with the soft iron tools at the disposal of the Bushongo is a 
remarkable achievement; these drinking horns are reserved for successful warriors; no one who has 
not slain an enemy in battle or a leopard is allowed to drink from them.
FIG. 25.—The Babunda cannot resist the rhythm of music, which sets them a-dancing at 
once
FIG. 26.—Bapinji marimba or xylophone.
FIG. 27.—Trinket boxes of the Bushongo in the Museum collection
FIG. 28.—Bashilele drinking cups in the Museum collection.
FIG. 29.—An elder from Isambo.
FIG. 30.—Mopende in dancing costume.

I will not enter into the intricate paths by which alone one can come to understand the derivation of the 
different names of designs. I ventured to go into some details of Bushongo art because the
quality of the Bushongo decorations is so remarkable and because the native point of view with regard 
to the classification of patterns is an extremely interesting physiological question. Enough has been
said to show that the acquisition of these objects is of considerable value, not only from the scientific, 
but also from the artistic point of view.        

• 
E. TORDAY.
FIG. 31.—Bapende warriors.
FIG. 33.—Mobunda going to market.
FIG. 34.—Mobunda man with long hair.
FIG. 35.—Mombala youth with filed teeth.
FIG. 36.—Motetela drummer sending a "wireless"
message.    The signal drum is used for sending
messages to a distance by means of a code.
FIG. 37.—Southern Mombala boy playing flute
FIG.  38.—The Chikala  (judge in matrimonial cases) of 
Bushongo with an ancestral statue.
FIG. 39.—Badjokwe hunter.
FIG. 40.—Bakongo children.
FIG   41.—Bapende mother and child.
FIG. 42.—Babunda man in costume.
FIG. 43.—The granaries of a Bakongo village.
FIG. 44.—The smithy in full activity. (The meditative looking 
person is the smith, the others assistants.)
Frobenius doing fieldwork in the Congo. After a painting reproduced in 
Frobenius 1907, pl. xxxi, opposite p. 424
Images below are from the book:
Emil Torday and the Art of the Congo 
1900-1909
Emil Torday and his 2 dogs
Torday demonstrating his "clockwork" elephant. It was a mechanical elephant that he used to 
show the natives when he was dealing with them on acquiring artifacts.
Torday being carrier by a porter and 
his 2 dogs crossing a river.
  
The book above is a great reference book describing the exploration of Torday while he 
lived in the Congo collecting artifacts.


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