Left: Raccolte Extraeuropee del Castello Sforzesco [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARaccolte_Extraeuropee_-_Passar%C3%A9_00173_-_Statua_Bembe_-_Rep.Dem.Congo.jpg
Right: Brooklyn Museum [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABrooklyn_Museum_56.6.40_Female_Figure_Bimbi.jpg
Among the most immediately recognizable forms of Tanzanian art (aside from Tingatinga paintings, of course) are the various forms of wooden carvings that can be found around the country. Differences in the style, subjects, and decoration of these carved wooden sculptures reflect the differences in the carvers; the carvings of the Makonde, in the southeast of the country, look very different than those of the Holoholo, who traditionally called the shores of Lake Tanganyika home.
One of the most interesting types of carvings found in Tanzania are the bimbi statues of the Bembe tribe.
Modern day Bembe have spread throughout the country of Tanzania and onto the islands of Zanzibar (some 360,000 Tanzanians are Bembe), but the group originally lived in the Kigoma region, in the far west of the country. Traditionally hunters, the Bembe worshipped both a creator god, Nzambi, as well as ancestral spirits.
Nzambi is never depicted in Bembe art, but the spirits of the ancestors were traditionally thought to maintain close ties to the living. They could receive offerings and messages through priests, who make contact with them with the help of consecrated statuettes, or bimbi.
Bimbi statues depict idealized versions of these ancestors, their abdomens intricately carved in a mimicry of scarification (no longer practiced by the Bembe). The eyes are often inlaid with shells or ceramics, and most statues feature a cavity between the legs, into which medicinal substances can be inserted (doing so is said to give the figurines a protective power).
Female and male statues alike are generally depicted with knees bent (or rarely seated), and with anatomically appropriate features. But each statue type has distinct characteristics. Female statues have large, squarish chins, carefully-sculpted ears, and hair carved in relief. Male statues have their palms facing one another, one hand grasping a gourd, the other a weapon (usually a knife or rifle). Male statues also feature pointed chins, a stylized version of a beard.
Through these quasi-religious carvings, the living can maintain contact with the dead; it’s believed that the ancestral spirits actually inhabit the statues, watching over their descendants.
Today, these statues, like much of the Bembe culture (including the language), are quickly fading away. But the stories the remaining carvings tell live on in these fascinating works of art.
Author: Thomson Safaris
Thomson Safaris has been providing photographic Tanzania safaris and Mount Kilimanjaro treks for over 35 years.