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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Songye : Songye Bishimba Fetish Sculpture
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Songye Bishimba Fetish Sculpture - PF.4741 (LSO)
Origin: Southeastern Congo
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 21.625" (54.9cm) high x 6" (15.2cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Wood

Additional Information: Closet AF12
Location: United States
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This elegant 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), the high base, the slender and comparatively long limbs and the accessories (metal fragments, raffia etc) that encircle its waist and neck. In addition, it is either a hermaphrodite or stylistically unconventional as it possessed both breasts and an incised-decoration beard. It has an exceptionally protuberant abdomen – perhaps indicating pregnancy – and a very long, thin neck. The head is large, and surmounted with a carved horn. The eyes are upwards-slanted coffee beans, the nose triangular and the mouth rectangular and hollowed. The patina is dark and uniform.

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 an appealing, probably domestic object, and an attractive piece of African art.

- (PF.4741 (LSO))


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