The Kongo peoples (or Bakongo) encompass a number of Kikongo-speaking groups who are situated on either side of the lower reaches of the Congo River. The capital of a large and well-organized Kongo Kingdom, Mbanza Kongo was located in what is now northern Angola. Ngoyo and Loango are among the other Kongo kingdoms of the region that have remained independent. The generally small Kongo communities were linked to each other by ties of kinship, ritual affiliation and trade.

In 1885, when European colonial powers partitioned Africa among themselves, the Bakongo found themselves geographically divided and distributed among the French colony of Moyen Congo, the Belgian Congo and the Portuguese colony of Angola. The enclave of Cabinda, on the coast between the two Congo republics, became part of the territory of Angola. Christianity, first introduced by missionaries in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, was reintroduced at this time, and many institutions that had generated Kongo art were suppressed.

Little is known of the arts of the former Kongo Kingdom, except for royal insignia. It is known that European visitors took home some of the admired mats and cloths of finely woven palm fibers and objects of carved wood and ivory, where they have been preserved in private and public collections since the 1600s. Most collecting occurred between 1850 and 1920, a period of intensifying European interest in Africa when ethnographic museums were established in many European cities.