This elegant fly-whisk with anthropomorphic finial was made by the Songye people of what was once Zaire. It is a remarkable example of the genre. The body of the whisk is made up of a textile/hessian bound around a wooden core, to which is attached a long whisk made of what appears to be horse tail hair. The core is surmounted with a pedestal base, upon which stands a superb representation of a Songye male â€“ the short, flexed legs, the protuberant abdomen, the columnar neck and the large head with broad cheekbones, a square jaw and a short nose flanked by closed coffee-bean eyes. The mouth is a complex cruciform shape. Detailing is good, even below the neck, which is a rarity for Songye pieces. It shows a truly outstanding glossy use 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 kifwebe masks created for members of the Bwadi Bwa. The word kifwebe means â€œmaskâ€ in Songye, and describes long-faced creations decorated with curvilinear designs. Crested examples are male, while plain-topped ones are female; the masquerade dancers wearing each of these masks 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 sometimes decorated with feathers and other organic materials, and which are known as Bishimba. Their magical powers are contained within the horn inserted into the top of the head, which may contain objects such as organic residues, grave earth and biological objects such as feathers or claws. The navel may also be used to situate a bilongo (packet of magical materials), similar to the Kongo tradition. 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.
In some cases Songye sculptors used their skills to decorate secular objects and also such items as courtly regalia, to which category this piece pertains. The use of horse-tail fly whisks is associated with royal and high-echelon administrative positions across West Africa.
This is an exceptional piece of African art.