Nkiteki (Ancestor Figure)


By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


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.

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all biteki figures:

  • Height = 4 - 8 inches
  • Made of hard, brittle wood
  • All anthropomorphic figures (no zoomorphic figures have been identified among the Bembe)
  • Large head
  • Inlaid porcelain eyes
  • Elongated beard sometimes carved in male figures
  • Round, thick neck
  • Elongated trunk
  • Many Bembe figures hold an 'attribute', usually a symbol of authority, in one or both hands
    • Figures holding weapons, such as a knife or rifle, refer to a chief or warrior
    • Figures holding a staff are also indicative of a leader
    • Figures holding one or several bells represent an important nganga (diviner; the nganga uses wooden bells to attract the attention of supernatural forces or spirits during divination rituals)
    • Female figures rarely hold items in their hands
  • Figures usually stand or crouch; rare examples are seated
  • Geometric scarifications carved, in relief, on front (and sometimes back) of figure
    • Scarifications mark the identity and social rank of the depicted individual
    • Only a very small number of Bembe figures have no body scarifications at all
  • Detailed genitals
  • Carved hole near rectum of figure
  • Slightly bent legs
  • Large feet
  • Bright shiny patina

Sub-type variations ('Warrior' figure):

  • Head surmounted by headdress or cap
  • Upright male figure holding a rifle in one hand and a knife in the other
  • Depicts ancestral hunters or warriors renowned for their prowess in their communities
  • Figure intended for the protection of hunting

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