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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Songye : Songye Ivory Figure
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Songye Ivory Figure - LSO.559
Origin: Southeastern Congo
Circa: 1850 AD to 1920 AD
Dimensions: 8.86" (22.5cm) high
Collection: African Art
Medium: Ivory

Location: Great Britain
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This serene ivory sculpture is a “fetish” figure – known as a Bishimba – made by the Songye of what was once Zaire. It is an unusually well- finished piece, with a fabulous golden patina. It depicts a typically-proportioned Hemba woman standing with hands on her breasts and her knees slightly bent. The torso is long, the limbs very short and the head comparatively large. The figure stands on an integrated pedestal base with stocky, short legs and flat feet. The buttocks are sharp, the stomach protuberant – probably indicating pregnancy. The abdomen is scarred four times with a four-pellet motif, encircling the navel. The breasts are pointed and protuberant, and the hands rest upon them on each side. The neck is columnar, supporting a large, domed head with a rear-projecting coiffure, with the characteristic decorated- cruciform coiffure. The profile is traditional, with a high, domed forehead and a dished face running into a moue with slightly parted lips. The eyes are large and closed under arched brows, the nose retrousse and triangular. The coiffure is demarcated by a carefully-decorated band that encircles the head from ear to ear.

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 “maskâ € 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. Exceptionally, these figures may be made of ivory, for social elites.

This is a superb piece of African art.

Further reading:

Bacquart, J. 1998/2000. The Tribal Arts of Africa. Thames and Hudson.

Phillips, T. (ed.) 1996. Africa: Art of a Continent. Prestel.

- (LSO.559)


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