The Bembe, a sub-group of the larger Kongo ethnic group of the Democratic Republic of Congo, make use of two key types of figures: ancestral figures used to represent and honour deceased community leaders, and another group of power figures used by diviners to cure ailments.
The Bembe believe that small wooden anthropomorphic figures are a representation of themselves in both form and spirit. Anyone with the financial means, usually chiefs and successful hunters, can commission an artist to carve a portrait figure depicting the individual as they wish to be remembered today and after their death. The figures highlight the continuity between ancestors and living relatives, they demonstrate the important role ancestors are believed to play in ensuring the fertility and protection of the family and community.
All carved Bembe figures are called nkumba; figures that have not been 'charged' with special powers or the spirit of their owners. Upon the death of a figure's owner, pieces of the individual's corpse are mixed with medicines and 'magic' substances (bilongo). This mixture is then inserted into a small carved hole near the rectum of the figure. By inserting the mixture and sealing the hole with a wooden plug and/or cloth wrapping, the nkumba figure receives the spirit of the ancestor and is thus transformed into a nkiteki ancestor figure (also called kiteki, sibiti, bimbi or mukuya in some sources; pl. biteki).
Biteki figures are housed with other ancestral figures in a family shelter called a nzo bakulu. The nzo bakulu is guarded by a male elder of the family to which the figures belong.
Common features among all biteki figures:
Sub-type variations ('Warrior' figure):