TRIBAL AFRICAN ART

BEMBE (WABEMBE, BEEMBE, BABEMBE, CUABEMBE)

The Bembe form a group of 60 to 80,000 people; they live north of the Zaire River, on the plateaus of the People’s Republic of the Congo as well as on the shores of Stanley Pool and in the cities of Brazzaville, Dolisie, and Pointe-Noire. The Bembe had close contacts with their neighbors the Teke, but Kongo contributions were essential to their culture and traditions. Their social organization was based on the matrimonial clan, whose members could live in several villages. The family unit generally included three generations. The chief in charge of the village, the nga-bula, mediated with the ancestors. Hunting was the main activity; before leaving on a hunt, the leader would invoke the ancestral spirits, using as intermediaries statuettes kneeling in the position of a hunter lying in wait for his prey. The Bembe believed in a creator god, Nzambi, whom they did not depict figuratively. He was the master of the 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 the living and received offerings through the “priest,” who made appeals to statuettes, the kitebi or bimbi, consecrated by the 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 magic statues, nkisi, by the sorcerers.

Bembe art is profoundly religious; its purpose is to maintain contact with the dead. The Bembe statuettes are divided by size and sex. As long as the spirit lives in the statue, it watches over its descendants and punishes transgressors of customs or precepts. The statuette is dressed in a skin or fabric loincloth and a beaded necklace, and wears a beard. The palms of the male sculptures’ hands are turned toward one another or they carry objects: a rifle or knife in the right hand and a calabash in the left. Sometimes two braids frame the face, sometimes the hairdo ends in a long braid at the back of the head. The figure usually is upright with knees slightly bent, its large feet with carefully articulated toes standing on the base; the seated position occurs less frequently. Female statuettes have a pronounced, almost square, chin, a large nose and mouth, finely sculpted ears, and hair carved in relief on the forehead. The muziri is an anthropomorphic power figure, composed of plant material covered in red fabric, which contains relics of the ancestor and receives, under a small purpose-built shelter, regular libations of palm wine and food offerings. 

An ornamental, secular art does also exist and includes pipes, spoons, earplugs, and musical instruments.  

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