Bembe

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 Bembe originate from the northwest forests of Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are representative of numerous ethnic traditions including Lega, pre-Lega, Boyo-Kunda, and Bemba. They are a tough and proud people who absorbed other populations and their systems of thought in the process of carving out their current homeland in a time of widespread conflict and under economic pressure from European invaders and slave traders during the 19th century. Their desire for more land continues to result in conflict in the area today.

Economy

The Bembe rely heavily on farming, which is done mostly by women. Rice, maize, groundnuts, beans, and bananas are the staple crops. Goats, sheep, pigs, and chicken are raised for meat. The men are responsible for supplementing this diet through hunting, to which they attach great ritual importance. Occasionally, the Bembe lease out some of their land to neighbors for grazing, and recently they have begun to prospect for alluvial gold and tin, which they can sell.

Political Systems

Although there is no centralized local authority in Bembeland, government is run quite effectively through a large number of patrilineal clans. The Bwami society, which is made up of the influential men in the community, is responsible for making the political, economic, and judicial decisions which affect the community.

Religion

Religion is based on individual and lineage ancestor cults. The Bembe have also absorbed many of the religious ideas of their neighbors. They honor bahomba (nature spirits), m'ma (the earth spirit), and the spirit of Lake Tanganyika, Mkangualukulu, among others.

Facts about Bembe

Location

Explore a map of Bembe peoples and their neighbors in southern Democratic Republic of the Congo

Countries

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Languages

Ebembe or Kibembe (Bantu)

Population

70,000

Neighboring Peoples

Boyo, Lega