Beembe

Types of Art

Bembe are well known for miniature wooden statuary. Unlike neighboring peoples, they do not create masks or carve ivory. However, Bembe artists do make cloth-covered reliquary figures called muzidi and other applied arts, such as musical instruments, pipes, and spoons. Important collections of Bembe art appear in many museums such as the Stanley Museum of Art, the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva, the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm, the Gothenberg Museum of World Culture, Haverford College in Pennsylvania, and the Detroit Institute of Arts in Michigan.

Bembe wooden statuary ranges in height from approximately four to eight inches (ten to twenty centimeters). Most Bembe statues have scarification patterns, which typically appear on the stomach. According to Raoul Lehuard and Alain Lecomte (2010), the three most common types appear with the following: (1) a disconnected diamond shape pattern with two opposing “Vs,” one on top of another; (2) a mustache-shaped “V” with “arms extended on either curve”; or (3) an extended lozenge (diamond) shape or expanded arrows pointing in opposing left and right directions from a center point. Most figures stand with the knees slightly bent, and their big feet feature clearly marked toes. Each female figure typically features a pronounced chin, big nose, and large mouth, and male statues commonly feature long beards.

The Mikenge, a subgroup of the Bembe people, make wooden figures as divination objects. Owners commonly pour libations upon the figures, which results in complex layers of blood and mixed clay. A typological analysis of 491 different examples by Lehuard and Lecomte revealed three common types as follows: (1) figures holding a knife and a gourd or a horn; (2) figures holding a rifle or other accessory; and (3) figures standing with hands resting on the stomach.

Reliquary figures called muzidi (also known as muziri, or kimbi) are small cloth dolls with symbols drawn in chalk on the face and stomach. They are similar to niombo, which are larger, cloth-covered reliquary figures created by the Bwende in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Figures typically consist red cloth, but blue cloth is also common. Muzidi range in height from approximately twenty-four to twenty-eight inches (sixty to seventy centimeters). Because they are reliquary figures, they commonly contain human bones. Similar to niombo, many feature one arm placed towards the ground and the other towards the sky. According to the Bwende, this gesture symbolizes the liminal world between the living and the dead. Muzidi also commonly feature an open mouth with prominently displayed teeth.

History

The Beembe live north of the Congo River in the Congo (Brazzaville) on a plateau that rises above the Niari River. The Beembe have been closely linked to the Kingdom of the Kongo since at least the 15th century. Although there are numerous theories about their origin, it seems very possible that they arrived in the region in two separate migrations: some had lived in the region since before 1485, while others split from the Kongo at the time of a battle with the Portuguese in 1665. Their neighbors to the north are the Teke, who were the original inhabitants of the Dondo Plateau. The Beembe are matrilineal and polygamous.

Economy

The Beembe are fishermen, and also farm, raising peanuts, manioc, and sweet potatoes. Men do most of the hunting and fishing, and women do most of the farming. Hunting and gathering continue to add significantly to their diet. Fishing is carried out with nets, baskets, and poison, and hunting with firearms, dogs, and nets string through the forest.

Political Systems

The family is the most basic unit, with several families grouped into mvila (clans). The only system of political authority is the elected religious chief, mfumu mpu, who is responsible for honoring the spirits of the ancestors and controls the family nature spirits, nkisi. As he exercises political power, he is advised by a council of bambuta (lineage elders).

Religion

The Beembe honor both the spirits of their ancestors and nature spirits. Power figures are carved to embody nkisi, or spirits that fight witchcraft. The relics of important ancestors are kept in small, carved figures or are wrapped in cloth. There are healing cults called Mpodi, Ngombo, and Nkondi.

Facts about Beembe

Location

Explore a map of Beembe peoples and their neighbors in southern Congo

Countries

Congo

Languages

Kibeembe (Bantu)

Population

80,000

Neighboring Peoples

Bwende, Teke, Yaka