Like the Kongo and other fellow Bantu cultures of central Africa, the Songye called upon supernatural forces which they believed could be contacted and manipulated in their favor through power sculptures, minkisi. While the Kongo adhered to certain prescribed types according to the nature of the problem requiring the nkisi’s assistance, maintaining certain sculptural formulae, the Songye sculptor-diviner (nganga) was unrestrained by such prescriptions. Taking a certain “classic” sculptural vocabulary as a point of departure, Songye artists proceeded with every imaginable variation at their disposal. A client commissioning a figure, describing the circumstances that require the intervention of the nkisi, might relay a description that inspired the form of the sculpture – perhaps from a dream or a mystical encounter with the spirit itself. Both in the design and execution of the underlying wood sculpture, and in the addition of magical accoutrements (bishimba), Songye power figures are the wildly inspired products of this mystical influence and artistic freedom. As a result, the Songye pantheon is full of powerful, menacing, exuberant, mischievous, unruly, and sometimes terrifying characters.
Sculpturally, Songye power figures exhibit some of the most elegant and sophisticated forms in all of central African art. The “classic” characteristics of the Songye sculptural vocabulary include a generally columnar form; an elaborate coiffure, mimicking the regalia of a high-ranking leader, often bounded by a tiara-like hairline and sometimes surmounted by one or more animal horns; a face generally in the shape of an inverted triangle, featuring a direct, confrontational expression, large eyes and a protruding, sometimes toothy mouth; a cylindrical neck; an enlarged belly, which frequently centered upon a receptacle for magic materials located at the umbilicus; symmetrically positioned arms, bent at the elbows, with openings under the upper arms; large powerful hands placed on either side of the abdomen; and short, powerful legs atop large paddle-shaped feet, usually standing on an integrally-carved cylindrical plinth. In some cases these elements were greatly simplified, or omitted altogether, when they were intended to be covered by attachments. Bodies are reduced to essential geometry, and certain features are emphasized according to their symbolic importance. With an extraordinarily inventive visual vocabulary, representations of the human body invoke themes as various as magical power, aggression towards one’s enemies, fertility and the continuation ancestral lineages, and very often, protective strength.
The Songye regarded the wood figure as merely a shell, activated to full power only by the addition of bishimba, the sacred “medicine” composed of animal, plant, and mineral substances chosen for their magical properties. These additions could be incorporated as external accessories, packed into cavities or channels in the figures themselves, or bundled into attached pouches or containers. Some materials are readily recognizable and have direct associations with powerful attributes in the natural world: the feathers of a bird of prey, the skin of a venomous snake, the horns of a large mammal, or the teeth or claws of a predator. Others have an unseen symbolic meaning, such as earth from the footprint of an elephant or material from a tree which has been struck by lightning. Metal tacks and appliqué, particularly those added to the faces of Songye figures, refer to great powers of the blacksmith, an important culture hero, as well as to the dangerous, celestial powers of lightning. The forces harnessed by bishimba could be directed maliciously against one’s enemies, or towards a desirable positive outcome.
The Hungarian ethnographer Emil Torday, who travelled through central Africa at the beginning of the last century, relates that the ruler over the powerful Kuba kingdom King Kot áPe had the famous Songye sculptor-diviner Kongolo brought to his court in order to ensure the king’s protection and well-being. Kongolo created a set of four personal power figures which were kept in the king’s royal treasury. A 1908 photograph, taken during Torday’s visit, shows King Kot áPe standing next to them. Hundreds of miles away from Songye country, the presence of Songye power statuary in Kot áPe’s treasury attests to the Songye’s extraordinary reputation, far beyond their own borders, for their control over supernatural forces. They were the greatest champions of magic and the associated art of power statuary, and today these sculptures are rightly placed among the highest accomplishments of African art.