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The Magic Figures of the Teke

by Vittorio Carini


Republic of Congo ethnic map        Teke chief    Teke landscape    Teke chief



The ancient Teke, (Mutek sing., plur. Bateke) referred to by the first European explorers as the Ategue, Moteques, Meticas, Bakono, Tio, etc ... were the predominant population which in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, after migration from the North-west, occupied most of the territories of what is now the current Republic of Congo (former French Congo-Brazzaville,) part of Gabon and beyond the Congo river along the banks of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in the area of Kinshasa.
The Teke warriors, certainly not unfamiliar with the trafficking of slaves, were particularly feared by neighboring populations due to their reputation for ferocity and skillfulness in battle. For this reason their isolation augmented for quite some time, despite the French colonists urging them to put an end to any inter-tribal wars that could jeopardise or disturb their business affairs. Indeed, towards the end of the 1800s, all these conflicts worked in Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza’s favour.  A Friulian noble, naturalized French after having attended the Naval Academy, he signed a treaty with the King of the Teke, Makoko Illo, incorporating cleverness and a peaceful approach. The King, fearful that the powerful white men (mundele) would form allies with enemy populations such as the Obamba and the Bakongo, signed an unconditional treaty of alliance and of the annexation of his territories to France.




Strangely enough, unlike other populations, the Teke people and their artefacts were somewhat disregarded by anthropologists and scholars. The already difficult task of finding the exact transliteration of the terms regarding religious sculptures was complicated by the fact that each clan and family, depending on their place of settlement, used different terms to indicate the various typologies.

Their magical statuettes (generally called biteki or bitegué), almost always representative of a male, cannot be precisely catalogued, as only the recipient and their sculptors knew their intrinsic powers and the use for which they had been intended. According to R. Lehuard (1996), the bifwa statuettes, related to ancestor worship, are of two types: bankaga, representative  of positive spirits, and mupfu, representative of negative spirits, which were in turn divided into nkiba (statuettes without relics or additions of any kind), and buti (butti). These more important statuettes, abundant with relics which materialized the spirit and supernatural power, were physical depictions of the ancestors. These statuettes could possess: bonga, a category of powers which comprised therapeutic components,  nsala, for healing powers, iloo, with powers to fight against witchcraft, sorceries and the evil spirits of the ancestors, or ikwene, with magical forces of protection that ensured success in any undertaking.

According to the historian Jan Vansina, author of a monograph/dissertation on the Teke-Tio following field research from 1963 to 1965, the statuettes were called magic itio (a wooden figure used as a fetish.)

The decline in the use of these wooden figures was certainly accelerated by the arrival in the late 1960s of the Croix-Koma, the syncretistic religious sect of the prophet Malanda, who ordered his followers to surrender all their sacred statues. These were not destroyed, however, but collected in a sort of museum in Kankava, from where they were gradually dispersed over time. But the most serious cause of the decline was due to the actions of the JMNR political movement (Jeunesse du Mouvement National de la Révolution), with their pragmatic Maoist ideals. The movement resolved to lead a campaign dubbed "The Fire of the Fetishes", vanquishing the older generations and all they represented. The elderly were therefore persecuted, humiliated, harassed and most of all, ridiculed. The operation, which at times even became violent, was widespread and systematic, seeking to strip the previous generations of a power considered unbearable, not to mention very dangerous due to the magical practices used in witchcraft. (“I recall that in the late 1970s, presiding over each village was a traditional chief and a political leader, sent and imposed by the central government”. (ndr)

From time to time a small pocket of resistance was tolerated, however. One example occurred on the Mbé Plateau, the historical site of King Makoko, where an elderly traditional sculptor  was still operating in the1980s. The sculptor, Bernard Mamou, carved mainly at the request of the Western market.






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