3643 – A carved bimbi, or ancestor statue

Museum classification:
15 cm tall


A carved male figure, 15cm tall, with stylized beard and cap, holding a rifle and dagger.  The stomach and sternum area are decorated with shallow carvings.  A small round cavity, 1 cm in diameter and 2 cm in depth, is carved into the figure just below the buttocks.  The wood has a dark mahogany coloured patina and is very hard.


Until 2016 was part of the collection belonging to Alison Brierley, Harrogate.  Based on comparative analysis, this is probably a bimbi figurine, carved by the Bembe people who are dispersed throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo and Western Tanzania.  A similar figure can be found in the Brooklyn Museum 1989.51.59 (https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/116682).  

Use and meaning

It is difficult to accurately state whether this figure has been used or whether it was carved based on traditional patterns for Western consumption.  One aspect in favour of the former is the hole in the figurine which is present in many bimbi figures as a receptacle of medicinal and spiritually efficacious herbs; as Bertil Soderburg writes:  "Important and characteristic features of Bembe figures are the holes that have been made in the man's buttocks and under the animal's belly [referring to a specific figure which a figure sits atop a horse/cat type figure].  To sanctify the figure, the priest brings the ancestor's spirit into it and shuts the opening with a plug or a piece of cloth. [...]  In-laid porcelain eyes, and the treatment of the ears, round neck, broad nose, thick lips, and beard ... are also characteristic of Bembe figures."  Tattooed figures may also refer to the means of tattooing by scarification used by the Bembe.

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