Ndengese knife, Democratic Republic of the Congo

, 20th century


20 1/2 x 5 1/2 in. (52 x 14 cm)


About this artwork

This ceremonial wooden knife is shaped like an adze with an abbreviated blade (or the number 7). It has a finely-incised design of a circle at the top of the handle from which extend fine lines down the handle and also across the short blade. The outer edges of the knife are whitened, perhaps with kaolin powder, which is sometimes used on ritual or ceremonial objects. The grip of the knife is decorated with a diamond or lozenge pattern associated with neighboring groups, who also make use of ceremonial wooden and iron knives.

This knife is very similar to one on the Ethan Rider Tribal Arts site, which is said to be Ndengese from the early 20th century. Both knives have the same pattern on the handle and blade. The main difference is the Bët-bi knife has a grip with an incised diamond pattern, often seen on Kuba objects, while the Rider knife has a plain grip. As has been pointed out, there was a creative mingling of styles and practices throughout the region, and the provenance of objects may be very uncertain. Moreover, many objects were taken or bought with little attention to provenance, and dealers may have made decisions on place of origin based on speculative categories that were based on what would fetch the highest price.

According to information on the Tribal Art site, this type of knife was associated with a “secret” society called Ntochi, also found among neighboring groups, including the Songye-Meno. The Ntochi society seems to have been associated with political power, but as Mary Nooter points out, this designation of “secret” by outsiders may reflect their own eurocentric biases, more than any true knowledge about the object. The “secret” nature of the objects may have simply been a response to the colonial or outsider presence that obliged formerly open associations to hide their activities to avoid the attention of the colonial regime. Additionally, dealers and collectors may focus on the so-called ‘secret’ nature of an object to increase its appeal.

The Ndengese area is home to about 12,000 people. They are centralized to the extent that they have a king who has authority over local chiefs and aristocrats.

Ethan Rider. “Wooden Prestige Blade Itapi Dengese Ndengese, DRC”. Blades, Tribal Art.

Mary Nooter. “Secrecy: African Art That Conceals and Reveals.” African Arts, 26 no. 1, (January 1993): 54-69, 102.

The MET. “Vessel: Head.” The Collection. Accessed March 15, 2023.