The Beembe are a Bantu people living in southern Republic of de Congo (Brazzaville), precisely in Bouenza and in the cities of Brazzaville, Dolisie, and Pointe-Noire. It is a Kongo subgroup. Beembe society is economically based on agriculture.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Their social organisation was based on the matrimonial clan, whose members could live in several villages. The family unit generally included three generations. The chief in charge of the village, the nga-bula, mediated with the ancestors.
Hunting was the main activity; before leaving on a hunt, the leader would invoke the ancestral spirits, using as intermediaries statuettes kneeling in the position of a hunter waiting for his prey. The Bembe believed in a creator god, Nzambi, whom they did not depict figuratively. He was the master of the life and death – unless the latter was due to the act of a sorcerer, ndoki, who could magically “eat” the life force of clan members. The ancestors had close ties with the living and received offerings through the “priest” who made appeals to statuettes, the kitebi or bimbi, consecrated by the sorcerer. These figurines were the idealized images of the ancestors and would often wear attributes that allowed them to be identified as medicine men or hunters. The ancestor worship among the Bembe is older, though, and precedes the use of magic statues, nkisi, by the sorcerers.
In terms of artistic practice, the Beembe have much in common with other Kongo groups, such as the use of nkisi figures. However, Beembe figures are the most distinctive form of Beembe sculpture. Beembe are meticulously carved ancestral figures rendered in idealized form. They display extensive geometric incisions representing scarification on their abdomens, and their eyes are inlaid with ceramic or shell shards. Beembe typically have a small cavity between their legs, into which medicinal substances were inserted; this practice endowed the figures with protective powers.
The figure usually is upright with knees slightly bent, its large feet with carefully articulated toes standing on the base; the seated position occurs less frequently. Female statuettes have a pronounced, almost square, chin, a large nose and mouth, finely sculpted ears, and hair carved in relief on the forehead. The hands of male sculptures’ are typically turned toward one another and are carrying implements that represent the ancestor's profession in life.
Beembe are well known for miniature wooden statuary. Unlike neighboring peoples, they do not create masks or carve ivory. However, Beembe artists do make cloth-covered reliquary figures called muzidi and other applied arts, such as musical instruments, pipes, and spoons. Important collections of Beembe 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.
Beembe wooden statuary ranges in height from approximately four to eight inches (ten to twenty centimeters). Most Beembe 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 Beembe 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.