This enormous and impressive piece is a bishimba figure made by the Songye people of what was once Zaire. It is very unusual in terms of size, and also in terms of the facial and other details, and the style of the surface treatment. The representation does not differ significantly from the norm below the neck, with short legs, a protuberant stomach supporting the hands, and well-rendered breasts/chest (the sex of the individual is concealed beneath a raffia/textile skirt). The neck is columnar and adorned with two necklaces. The head is long, with a domed forehead, a square chin, arched brows, closed eyes, a slender nose and a mouth shaped like an “8” on its side. Much of the face is decorated with metal studs and tacks. The head is surmounted with a tall horn inserted into the apex, and a crest of smaller eminences running coronally. The wood is dark brown with patination.
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.
Given its size, it must have been a central social focus. This piece is a powerful and impressive work of African art.