Wooden figure "Nkiteki"

450 €

Bembe people, D.R.Congo, 20th century, private collection from Netherlands.

The Bembe (also called Babembe, Beembe, Cuabembe and Wabembe) are an small ethnic and linguistic group (of 60 to 80,000 people) based in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, western Tanzania and Burundi. They live on the plateaus situated to the north of the Zaire River, as well as on the shores of Pool Malebo and in the cities of Brazzaville, Dolisie, and Pointe-Noire. The Bembe had close contacts with their neighbors the Teke and Bakongo. Their social organization was based on the matrimonial clan, whose members could live in several villages. The family unit generally included three generation. The chief in charge of the village, the "nga-bula", mediated with the ancestors.

The Bembe rely heavily on farming, which is done mostly by women. The staple crops are rice, maize, banana, beans, groundnuts. Goats, sheep, pigs, and chicken are raised for meat. The men are responsible for supplementing this diet through fishing and hunting, to which they attach great ritual importance. Before the leaving on a hunt, the leader would invoke the ancestral spirits, using as intermediaries statuettes kneeling in the position of a hunter waiting for his prey.

The Bembe religion is based on individual and lineage ancestor cults. The Bembe believed in a creator god called Nzambi, whom they did not depict figuratively. He was the master of life and death, unless the latter was due to the act of a sorcerer (ndoki), who could magically "eat" the life force of clan members. The ancestors had close ties with living and received offerings through the priest who made appeals to the wooden figures, consecrated by a sorcerer. These figurines were the idealized images of the ancestors and would often wear attributes that allowed them to be identified as medicine men or hunters. The ancestor worship among the Bembe is older, though, and precedes the use of power figures (nkisi) by the sorcerers. It recalls the history of their respective clans through worship at private and public shrines, which appear in the form of miniature huts, enclosures or tables and are situated either somewhere in the village or on an ancestor's grave. Often food is offered or animals are sacrificed on the shrine and, sometimes, magical stones, horns or blades are left in situ. In exchange, the ancestor protects the tribe and increases fecundity. The Bembe have also absorbed many of religious ideas of their neighbors (Lega, Boyo and Teke peoples). They also honor nature spirits (bahomba), earth spirit (m'ma) and the spirit of Lake Tanganyika (mkangualukulu).

Secret societes play important role in Bembe life. The Bwami society, inspired by the neighboouring Lega people, exists in a simplified form, but male members are still circumcised and small statuettes and magical objects are handled. The mysterious Elanda society exercises social control over the village and is accessible to men only through a substantial initial subscription paid to the head of society. The male society Alunga (called also kalunga) is in charge of public dances and is responsible for conducting the ceremonies which precede a hunt. The Bembe art is profoundly religious and, its purpose is to maintain contact with the dead. There are mainly two types of Bembe mask. The most famous are secret society mask called "Echawokaba" from the initiation ceremonies of the Alunga association and at the Butende ceremonies. Mask represents a janus-headed spirit from the forest. The other mask are used in the secret Bwami society circumcision ceremonies.

The Bembe statuettes are divided by size and sex. All sculpted Bembe figures are called nkumba; figures that have not been loaded with special powers or the minds of their owners. On the death of the owner of a figure, pieces of the corpse of the individual are mixed with medicines and magical ingredients (bilongo). This mixture is then inserted into small carved hole near the rectum of the figure. By inserting the mixture and sealng the hole with a wooden cap and/or a wrapping sheet, the figure nkumba receives the spirit of the ancestor and thus turns into an ancestor figure nkiteki (also called kiteki, bimbi, sibiti or mukuya). As long the spirit lives in the statue, it watches over its descendants and punishes transgressors of customs or precepts.

A large ancestral figure with a body composed light wood. Characteristic elongated trunk with raffia and cloth stripes wrapped around, richly adorned with large seed pods, plant fiber cord and horn. Eyes inlaid with cowrie shells. Oblong head with stylistic long nose and small mouth and ears. Figure are in upright position with knees slightly bent, its large feet with articulated toes standing on the base. A cavity between legs with medicinal substances. Sealed with wooden cap. Good condition.  Age-related wear due handling over many years. Fractures, cracks and abrasion. Signs of libation. Encrusted aged dark brown patina. Dirt, dust and soil. Wormholes. The size of figure are approx. 57,5cm x 14,5cm x 11,5cm. Weight c. 1283g.

References, citations & sources:

Northern Kongo Ancestor Figures, Kavuna Simon and Wyatt MacGaffey, African Arts, Vol.28, No.2, pp. 48-53+91, Published UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center, Spring 1995.

Bembe Art, Daniel P. Biebuyck, African Arts, Vol.5, No. 3, pp. 12-19+75+84, Spring 1972.

Tradition and Creativity in Tribal Art, Daniel P. Biebuyck, 1973.

Bembe, Art & Life in Africa, University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.

Bembe people, Africa, 101 Last Tribes.

Tribal Africa Art Museum, Zyama.com.