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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Songye : Songye Female Bishimba Sculpture
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Songye Female Bishimba Sculpture - PF.4450 (LSO)
Origin: Southeastern Congo
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 9.75" (24.8cm) high x 3" (7.6cm) wide
Collection: African
Style: Songye
Medium: Wood

Location: UAE
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This beautifully-patinated sculpture of a standing woman is a bishimba figure made by the Songye people of what was once Zaire. It is unusual in various respects, not least because of the gender of the figure (most bishimba are male) and the fact that it is use-wear patinated and decorated with organic materials to include fur, leather and fibre (raffia). It is an unusually small and well-formed example, with an integrated circular base, short legs, hands resting on a large abdomen (pregnant?), a prominent navel and breasts, angular shoulders, a short neck and an exquisitely-carved head with sharp cheekbones, high brows, narrow coffee-bean eyes, a short nose and a small, rectangular mouth with an incised centre. The neck is chokered with a fibrous necklace which also passes down between the breasts and around the back. The waist is surrounded with a mat of cloth and other organic material. The body colour is superb, with patination on the raised areas; it is probable that it also received libations.

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 is one of the best such pieces we have seen. The size suggests that it was a domestic object, which was well treated and used over a prolonged period of time. It is an attractive piece of African art.

- (PF.4450 (LSO))


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