Lot 111
  • 111

Songye Power Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo

20,000 - 30,000 USD
25,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • wood, cowrie shell, horn of a waterbuck antelope


Ernst Anspach, New York
Paul Steinhacker, New York
American Private Collection, acquired from the above in 1993


The Center for African Art, New York, Wild Spirits Strong Medicine: African Art and the Wilderness, May 10 - August 20, 1989; additional venues:
The Mary and Leigh Block Art Gallery, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, September 21 - November 22, 1989
The Lowe Art Museum, The University of Miami, Miami, December 14, 1989 - January 28, 1990
The Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, February 18 - April 30, 1990
The Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, September 15 - December 1, 1990


Martha G. Anderson & Christine Mullen Kreamer, Wild Spirits Strong Medicine: African Art and the Wilderness, New York, 1989, p. 124, cat. no. 84

Catalogue Note

Exhibiting the characteristics of the Songye sculptural canon, this nkisi is a refined example of power figures that inspired fear and awe through their projection of supernatural forces. Generally columnar in form, the figure has a disproportionately large head shaped as a rounded rectangle. At the top of the face, the eyes are tenderly rendered with two inlaid cowrie shells, while the nose and mouth are stylized in the form of an asymmetrical diamond and a protruding rectangle, respectively. The arms of the figure, bent at the elbows, are rectilinear, and lead the viewer’s eye towards the figure's rounded umbilicus. The figure's legs are short but powerful, projecting a sense of formal solidity and gravitas.

The production of power figures was the responsibility of sculptor-diviners (nganga) and a sculpture of this size would have belonged to an individual. 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. Bishima was often incorporated as external accessories, like the metal insert and antelope horn protruding from the top of the figure's head, and contained in receptacles, such as in this figure's enlarged belly. The forces harnessed by bishimba and invoked by the nganga could be directed maliciously against one's enemies, or towards a desirable positive outcome.