The Dengese, also known as the Ndengese, are an ethnic group from Democratic Republic of the Congo. They speak Bondengese and Lingala.
North of the Kuba kingdom situated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, across the Sankuru River, the 17,500 Dengese people claim to be the original population of the area. (Peoplegroups.org, 2023).
The Dengese live to the north of the powerful Kuba kingdom. Although the Kuba eventually surpassed the Dengese chiefdoms in size, wealth, political power, abundance of art works, royal historians recall a period in the distant past when the Kuba paid tribute to a Dengese ruler. The two groups share many of the same symbols of authority, among them luxurious raffia-cloth garments, leopard skins, ceremonial weapons, and musical instruments.
Their king, known as the etoshi, reigns over local chiefs who are assisted by noble men. Powerful groups such as the blacksmith, hunting and witchcraft societies counterbalance the political power of the chiefs.
Dengese political power is in the hands of the Itoci, initiated men who at great expense acquire the right to wear insignia of rank. Dengese figures depict these dignitaries, who are identified by a plaited raffia-fiber hat with a raffia-covered wooden cylinder projecting from the top.
The sculptures are conceived as half-figures, and the elongated torso terminates in a semicircular base that may actually represent stylized legs. The figures achieve a fair degree of naturalism through the depiction of the broad shoulders, muscular chest, and rounded torso and arms. The elaborate coiffure and cap, neck rings, and bracelets reflect the stylistic influence of their Kuba neighbors. This is particularly evident in the figure's swelling forehead, emphasized by the shaven angular hairline, and his broad facial features. The close association between the Dengese and the Kuba is further suggested by the figure's complicated geometric scarification patterns, which are reminiscent of decorative motifs found on Kuba cut-pile cloth and intricately incised wooden objects.
While the Dengese do not use masks, their artists have produced great statues that became part of museum collections. These fine religious statues may be portraits of ancestors or funeral effigies. These statues have no lower extremities; the bodies are covered with scarifications, and figures wear bracelets and have hairdos that resemble those worn by notables, or totshi: a kind of finely braided bonnet topped with a small, wooden cylinder covered with fiber. Thus the body becomes a text. The bust and arms lengthen to accommodate the symbolic inscriptions that recall the relationship between the chief and those who are subject to his authority. The totshi belonged to an association that required enormous fees from its future members and an initiation that was performed in two stages. The statues are the funerary effigies of the totshi and represent them during the anniversary ceremony of the funeral, which would take place several months after a death.
The female statue is one supposedly depicting the female founder of the association – although women are not admitted as members. The headdress, a distorted cone, represents the one placed on the king’s head during his installation and symbolizes understanding, intelligence, distinction, respect, and unity among chiefs. The placement of the hands on the belly refers to the common origins of the king’s subjects, from which he anticipates cooperation. Numerous symbols are carved on the neck and on the elongated torso and arms in imitation of scarification patterns. The patterns allude to aphorisms and praise phrases that encode the mysteries of Dengese chiefly authority. The elongated trunk, covered with a close network of scarification, is entirely different from that of the head, which is smooth, expressive and dignified. A typical flared coiffure and geometric scarifications appear on cephalomorphic scepters and drinking cups also made by Dengese.
There are other carvings known from this tribe, such as a standing figure with a cup on its head, stools, and pipes. The Dengese are famous for their taste for costumes, for the decoration of their weapon, and for their metal necklaces and bracelets.