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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Miscellaneous : Songye Ivory Bishimba Sculpture
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Songye Ivory Bishimba Sculpture - CK.0028 (LSO)
Origin: Southeastern Congo
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 6.125" (15.6cm) high x 1.625" (4.1cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Ivory

Location: United States
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This beautifully carved and patinated ivory sculpture of a standing male is a bishimba figure made by the Songye people of what was once Zaire. It is very unusual in terms of its size, the material from which it is made and certain stylistic characters such as the exceptional obesity of the figure, the handling of the facial features and his domed and incised-decorated coiffure/headwear. The care taken with the carving is remarkable, in details such as the fingers and toes – that are individually picked- out – and the genitalia, the narrowed, lidded coffee-bean eyes, the square mouth and the cup-shaped ears. The colour of the ivory implies considerable age and also handling; it may have been further darkened by the application of libations The implications of this piece are not easy to read, but the evident prosperity of the person portrayed and the expense of commissioning something made from so costly a material both suggest that it represents and belonged to a member of the Songye social elite.

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 €œmask” 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.

This is an exceptional piece of African art.

- (CK.0028 (LSO))


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