The 150,000 Mbole people (also called Bambole) live on the left bank of the Zaire River, in the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). They migrated from the north of the Lualaba River during the 18th century. Politically each Mbole village is autonomous, headed by a chief chosen from the elders of each family. The tribe’s main resources are manioc and rice, which the women farm, and hunting which the men do. Three main societies give the Mbole social structure cohesion: the Ekanga is reserved for the healers, the Otuku for wives of the dignitaries and the powerful Lilwa society oversees every aspect of social and religious life, from circumcision to death, through different initiation ceremonies. The head of the Lilwa society, known as Isoya is so important that he is buried in a tree and his village hut is kept empty.
The Mbole are known principally for their figures which tend to be characterized by their geometric features, elongated emaciated bodies enlarged heads with heart-shaped faces, protruding mouths and crown-like coiffures. Yellow and white pigments are usually applied to the whole statue.
Mbole masks are rare and are only worn during circumcision ceremonies or for the funeral of a Lilwa society dignitary. They are oval-shaped and covered with pigments suggesting a human face.
The Mbole are renown for their figures, which represent a human figure, with hands on its thighs, legs slightly bent, hunched shoulders and an enlarged head with a typical heart-shaped face. They can be large (up to 100 cm high), but are mostly medium sized. They are thought to represent hanged men, Ofika, who have been judged guilty by the Lilwa society or sacrificed in order to allow a dignitary to obtain the Isoya grade of the Lilwa society. The figure is made by a sculptor belonging to the same family as the dead man and is supposed to contain his soul.
They are kept in special huts in the forest and are shown during initiation ceremonies and can be used to inhibit criminal behavior among new initiates. These statues are carried out of the forest on stretchers and are talked about during meetings, although women and children are not allowed to see them. Other figures, carved in a similar style, are believed to represent ancestors and are characterized by flattened shoulders and horizontal feet.
Baquart, Jean-Baptiste. The Tribal Arts of Africa. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc. 1998. Print.