Buti (Ancestral Figure)

By: Kathryn Cua || Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Ancestral spirits, called ikwii, are important in Teke society. Ikwii, meaning “shades of the dead” serve as guardians of the living, protecting them from any sort of adversity and affliction perpetrated by witches. The individuals upon whose spirits are called were typically chiefs and leaders, their presence assuring the community’s well-being. The father of a family would invoke the ikwii of some of his family members such as his father, mother and sometimes his mother’s brother to protect him and his family.

Reliquary figures called buti (spelled butti in some sources; sometimes called nkiba but nkiba have no central cavity) serve as a physical presence of ikwii. The master of a household would pray to his ikwii almost every day, typically in the evenings. Buti are named after and identified as specific male ancestors and located in a shrine to one’s deceased family members. Individual male patrons use buti figures to address a variety of personal concerns. Although buti are used by individual people to address personal matters, the buti of a village leader afforded benefits to the entire community, not to the individual leader alone.

As a way to summon the ikwii, the master rings a bell, shakes the otsara rattle and whispers shwii shwii close to the buti. Conversation proceeds, spoken in a way as if the relative were still alive. The master would give an offering of food by chewing some kola and spitting it on the figure for the ikwii to eat. He might then rinse the statue with nsta, lustral water, and then pour wine for the ikwii to drink.

A cavity is located within the front of the trunk that conceals medicinal matter (bonga), giving a physical and conceptual core to buti figures. The addition of bonga transforms the inanimate sculptural shell of the figure (figures devoid of bonga are called tege) into an ancestor. To desacralise an ancestral figure, the mystical substances located within must be removed. Upon the death of a figure’s owner, buti are buried along with his body and other belongings.

Distinguishing Features

  • Carved from ngasu wood or from soft light yellow mulong wood
  • Carved to be seen frontally
  • Seated or standing male figure
  • Head of Figure
    • Coiffure crowns head of figure
    • Hair of Sise subgroup a median comb-like tuft (mupani)
    • Hair of Fumu subgroup a spiraling hairstyle (ntali or imwu)
    • Face clearly delineated
    • Mabina tribal marks incised into face as incised parallel furrows, from upper temples down the side of face; vary in width
    • Long horizontal slits for eyes outlined by two eyelids
    • Sometimes eyes entirely replaced with European buttons
    • Stylised ears stand out in relief
    • Ears 'C' shaped when viewed from side
    • Prominent mouth
    • Parted lips stand out in relief
    • Ample, conspicuous beard varies in size
  • Body of figure
    • Trunk carved from middle section of cylinder
    • Core of medicinal matter (bonga; including earth from grave of the deceased, beard bristles, hair of venerated individuals, plantain leaves, parts of totemic animals) contained in adbominal trunk cavity
    • Core often fixed in place by resin sealant or wrapped in cloth secured with string
    • Arms highly conventionalised
    • Diminutive arms
    • Arms make a right-angle at bent elbow and shoulder
    • Arms never seen, being covered by bonga and resin sealant
    • Some examples have no arms carved
    • Hands not represented in detail
    • Ends of arms lie on the outer edges of the trunk cavity
    • Figures in seated position often have arms resting on raised knees
  • Legs of figure
    • Legs roughly treated
    • Standing figures bent at knees
    • Feet generally large (to support figure)
    • Soles arc often not quite flat

Share this