By Alexander Grogan
The Kunin Janus Statue, of the proper name "Mulange", is one of the most eccentric and powerful works ever created by a Songye artist. A tour-de-force of sculptural ingenuity, it employs both the astonishing artistic freedom and the high degree of formal sophistication which are unique to Songye power statuary. Rising above a faceted body on a tall ribbed cylindrical neck, the head is its distinguishing feature. Seen from the front, the viewer is confronted with a classic Songye face, with a rich, oily black surface partially covered in red pigment, and finely-carved cubistic features. Turning the sculpture, an extraordinary surprise is revealed: a second face, exactly opposite, bearing the iconic black and white striated design of a kifwebe mask. The spiritual power of this image inspires both fear and reverence, and is unequaled in any other cultural tradition.
Songye Power Statuary
Like the Kongo and other fellow Bantu cultures of central Africa, the Songye people called upon supernatural forces which they believed could be contacted and manipulated in their favor through power sculptures, mankisi (singular: nkisi). These sculptures range in size from a few centimeters to more than a meter in height, according to their function, and can be divided into two general categories: those for personal use, and those for the use of a whole village or community. Most small-scale mankisi were made to temporarily address specific purposes, and were therefore not created with longevity in mind. These were often created by their users, rather than by professional sculptors. Large scale community mankisi, however, served for longer periods of time - sometimes multiple generations. These were commissioned from celebrated master sculptors, and activated in elaborate rituals conducted by an nganga, or ritual specialist, who was considered to be as much the creator of the nkisi as the sculptor.
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 reptile, 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. Nails and other metal insertions and appliqué, particularly those added to the faces of Songye figures, refer to the great powers of the blacksmith, an important culture hero, as well as to the dangerous, celestial powers of lightning. The content of the bishimba was often prescribed by the ritual specialist according to the desired purpose.
On important occasions, often relating to particular dates in the lunar cycle, the community nkisi was “recharged” and brought through the community in a dramatic public procession, carried by means of wooden poles which were lashed to the apertures which are invariably seen under the arms of such figures. This method of manipulation avoided human contact with the figures or their bishimba, as these were considered too powerful to be touched. Ancestral spirits communicated through the nkisi via the mediation of an elder known as a kunca (or nkunja), who maintained the figure and oversaw its ritual use.
A particular community nkisi would serve for a period of time and defined the events that transpired under its tenure. Such figures were called by proper names which were well-known in proportion to their notoriety and efficacy. Regrettably due to the circumstances in which most of these figures were removed from their original contexts, these proper names are rarely remembered today.
Songye Sculptural Style
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 freely into a wide range of formal variation. 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, Songye artists achieved extraordinary imaginative heights with their statuary, giving sculptural form to sophisticated allegorical concepts.
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 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; and large powerful hands placed on either side of the abdomen.
Mulange: the Janus Statue from the Kunin Collection
As the proper names of Songye community power figures were rarely recorded at the time of removal from their original contexts, it is particularly fortunate that the Belgian field collector who acquired the Kunin statue in situ in the 1960s recorded the name of this figure, as well as the village in which it was collected: "Mulange", from Kapaka village, Kisengwa Chiefdom, in the Eastern Songye region (Hersak 1986: 163). It should be noted that as scholars have documented instances in which Songye sculptures or sculptors have traveled great distances, the geographic identification can be considered a record of where the figure was used, but not necessarily the origin of the sculptor.
The Kunin statue is remarkable in its state of preservation. Unlike most Songye figures in Western collections, which were typically stripped upon their arrival in Europe, this figure still bears an original skirt and attachments of bells, animal hides, metal insertions, charge bundles, and a leopard tooth pedant.
The iconography of a head with two opposite faces, conventionally named after the Roman god Janus, is extremely rare in Songye art. While the specific meaning of this complex arrangement in its Songye cultural context is unknown, one can compare it to other instances of such iconography known in other central African sculptural traditions, such as the Hemba and the Luba, both closely related neighbors of the Songye. Stylistically, the Kunin statue relates closely to Luba sculpture, which is characterized by rounded forms, meditative expressions, and stately elegance. Indeed the kifwebe face represented is identifiable as a specifically Songye-Luba style mask.
The representation of a kifwebe-masked face is seen in only a handful of Songye figures, including one in the The Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, Cologne (Neyt 2004: 252, fig. 215); one in a private collection published by Neyt (ibid.: 250-251, fig. 214); and a figure sold at Sotheby’s, New York, May 16, 2013, lot 163. Still rarer in the Songye corpus are Janus-headed figures, which include an unusual figure previously in the collection of Françoise and Jean Corlay, sold at Sotheby’s, Paris, June 18, 2003, lot 14. In a very few statues one sees the Janus iconography with kifwebe-masked faces: these include a figure today in the Museum der Kulturen, Basel (inv. no. "III9514") collected in situ by Hans Himmelheber in 1939; a small-scale figure collected by Karel Plasmans (Neyt 2004: 248-249, fig. 213); and a figure previously in the Anspach collection (Robbins and Nooter 1989: p. 466, fig.. 1200). The Anspach figure is quite close in design to the Kunin statue, not only in the distinctive shape and treatment of the Janus head, but also in the faceted body, characterized by powerful blocky shoulders and arms with disproportionately large upper arms, bent elbows, and short lower arms. Based upon these similarities the Anspach figure can be attributed to the same sculptural workshop as the Kunin statue.
The Kunin statue is however unique in the Songye corpus: it is the only known figure of Janus iconography in which the faces are different from one another. This suggests that the represented spirit Mulange not only faces opposite directions, but is also of multiple and disparate character: one face masked, and one unmasked, it implies that Mulange has the power to transform. The two opposed faces may also imply the omniscience of the spirit, and the ability to see into the past and into the future. Representing a spirit of dual nature, or opposite forces in balance, this concept is not unlike the Chinese Taoist idea of yin and yang.
These unique characteristics, together with its remarkable state of preservation and its highly refined sculptural quality, distinguish the Kunin statue as one of the great masterpieces of Songye sculpture. Fusing the influence of the sophisticated beauty of Luba and Hemba art with the imaginative potential of the Songye tradition, the sculptor of this remarkable statue has created a work of astonishing spiritual power which inspires both fear and reverence. The Kunin statue is arguably the finest work of Central African power statuary still in private hands.
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