This beautifully-patinated sculpture of a male torso on an integral base was made by the Songye people of what was once Zaire. It is a very attractive example of the genre, especially in terms of the energetic carving and the handling – rather than encrusted – patination. The torso ends abruptly just below the large abdomen, upon which the roughly-formed hands are resting. The face is classical, broad across the cheekbones with a domed forehead, coffee-bean eyes, a triangular nose, a rectangular mouth and a square chin, all surmounted with a horn which rises vertically from the apex of the head. The polish of the figure contrasts with the chiselled appearance of the base.; both are equally patinated, implying a long use history.
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 “mask” 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 and attractive piece of African art.