Songye Bishimba Sculpture

SKU PF.2532
Circa

20th Century AD

Dimensions

22″ (55.9cm) high x 7″ (17.8cm) wide

Medium

Wood

Origin

Southeasten Congo

Gallery Location

USA


 

This powerful sculpture of a standing man was made by the Songye people of what was once Zaire. It deviates somewhat from the conventional form in terms of proportions, detailing and decoration, although the general look is traditional. It has short legs with angular buttocks, an unusually short torso, hands resting on the prominent abdomen and a thick, columnar neck. The head is short and round, with a protruding horn atop the head. The face is expressive due to the inset brass tacks in the eyes, as well as the figure-of-eight mouth and wide, blunt nose. The penis is stubby and thick, and the figure also demonstrates a large navel, a decorative panel on the chest, low-relief fingers and toes and a double rope of trade beads around the neck. It also demonstrates a glossy, dark patina.

The Songye people are based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). They were founded in the 16th century following an exodus from the neighbouring Shaba area, settling near to the Lualuba River. There are around 150,000 Songye divided into subgroupings that are under the governorship of a central chief known as the Yakitenge. More local governance is in the hands of chiefs known as Sultani Ya Muti. Their economy is based upon agriculture and pastoralism.

The Songye are perhaps best known for their artworks, which are both institutional and domestic/personal in nature. Their best-known artefacts are masks created for members of the Bwadi Bwa Kifwebe. The word kifwebe means “mask” in Songye, and describes long-faced creations decorated with curvilinear designs. Crested examples are male, while plain-topped ones are female; these interact during masquerades to demonstrate the contrasting virtues of power (male) and familial values (female). The most impressive figural works are wooden sculptures that are usually decorated with feathers and other organic materials, and which are known as Bishimba. Their magical powers are contained within the horn that’s is usually inserted into the top of the head, which may contain objects such as organic residues, grave earth and biological objects such as feathers, claws or fur. The navel may also be used to situate a bilongo (packet of magical materials). The figures are often adorned with gifts in the form of furs, bells and other objects that are used to dress the figure; they also tend to receive libations, physical manifestations of appeals made for spiritual assistance.

This piece has clearly received such attentions, and was probably a large domestic or small centralised devotional figure. It is a very striking piece of African art.

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