Of all the major African sculptural styles, Songye statuary is perhaps the most various and difficult to sub-classify. Since the early 20th century, scholars have attempted to establish a typology of Songye sculptural styles and regions. The sprawling, decentralized range of the Songye people, as well as the itinerant nature of both the sculptors and their products have made the task all the more challenging, as documentary evidence of the location of a sculpture’s collection cannot be relied upon to indicate their origin, or the origin of the sculptor; there are known instances of sculptors moving from region to region, being commissioned by foreign courts or neighboring peoples, and of sculptures travelling hundreds of miles from their origins.
Therefore the few Songye styles which can be clearly established are particularly precious to art history. Using the technique pioneered in European art history by the 19th century art historian Giovanni Morelli and first adopted in the study of African art styles by the German scholar Hans Himmelheber, the analysis and comparison of sculptural traits allows for stylistic classification, with or without accompanying documentary information. In very rare instances, a group of sculptures shares a set of traits so formally distinctive and strongly idiosyncratic that one must conclude that they are the creations of the same master sculptor. Among the established hands in the Songye corpus, the so-called “Master of the Bulbous Copper Eyes” is perhaps the most distinctive artistic personality, and certainly among the greatest sculptural masters whose work survives.
In 1937, the Belgian art historian Frans Olbrechts arranged an exhibition of Congolese art at the City Festival Hall in Antwerp. At the center of the display of Songye figures (see Fig. 1) was an impressive male power figure of typical Songye form, with large feet atop an integrally-carved dome-shaped base, short powerful legs, the arms bent at right angles and held symmetrically at the sides, and the hands resting on either side of a swollen belly. Distinguishing it from all but one of the other twelve figures displayed on the rostrum, this figure has a long, elongated neck covered with fourteen necklaces of blue and white beads, as well as a face showing an alert, animated expression made especially striking by the round, protruding, copper-covered eyes. Collected by Gaston Heenen, the Belgian Governor of the province of Katanga, the figure was later acquired by the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, in 1951 (inv. no. “RG 51.10.1”, see Neyt 2004: 162-163, fig. 126).
Several other sculptures in early collections bear a close resemblence to the Heenen Statue in Tervuren: a second figure in Tervuren (op. cit.: 166: fig. 128); a third in the Museum der Weltkulturen, Frankfurt (inv. no. "SN33702", op. cit.: 174, fig. 139); and a fourth in the Etnografisch Museum, Antwerp (inv. no. "AE 40.1.47", op. cit.: 164, fig. 127). The most obvious features shared in common are the aformentioned lively facial expression and bulbous eyes made of copper. The notable similarities also include an overall orange-blonde color to the wood, which although it is unusual in the Songye corpus, is present in all of these examples. An open mouth with pointed corners, semicircular eyes in relief below the copper irises, a pronounced philtrum between the nose and lips, a projecting lower jaw, and finely-carved geometric hands and feet are also found in all of these statues. These distinctive features are the hallmarks of a single master with a highly developed personal artistic style.
The Kunin statue conforms perfectly to these sculptural principles. It is of generally taller, more naturalistic, and aesthetically-pleasing proportions than the Frankfurt, Antwerp, and Tervuren examples. An early photograph showing the figure in the collection of Jos Walscharts, Antwerp, reportedly before 1940, confirms that the present attachments, which include a Kuba-style beaded necklace, are almost certainly original to the figure.
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