Songye Community Power Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo
- wood, horn, snake skin
- Height: 45 1/4 in (115 cm)
Allan Stone, New York, acquired from the above presumably on March 28, 1983
S2 Gallery, Sotheby's New York, Hunters and Gatherers: The Art of Assemblage, November 18 - December 16, 2011
Kevin D. Dumouchelle, Power Incarnate: Allan Stone's Collection of Sculpture from the Congo, Greenwich, Connecticut, 2011, p. 72
Lisa Dennison and Adam Gopnick (eds.), Hunters and Gatherers: The Art of Assemblage, New York, 2011, p. 108-109
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The monumental scale and great artistic quality of the present figure suggest that it once served as an important community guardian. Of overall columnar form, it emerges from a solid integral cylinder; where many Songye statues have articulated feet, the design of the lower half of this figure conveys a solid, permanent position. Rising from this cylinder are softly defined legs, a swollen abdomen and hands held to either side of an umbilical charge of typical Songye form. The torso is rendered with a thin, delicately rounded trunk contrasting with massive, square shoulders accentuated by a row of metal tacks along the top edge.
The magical materials, or bishimba, which activated this figure are particularly diverse and befitting of a figure of this importance. Drawn from the natural world, they make reference to the attributes of the earth and animals and call upon their powers. At the top of the head is an antelope horn, filled with bishimba, and surrounded by deep, aged encrustation at the crown of the head. The figure probably once wore a headdress of fibers and feathers. The face is plated with copper, a reference to the power of the blacksmith and to lightning, and is dotted with metal studs. The mouth is inlaid with animal teeth. Five thick blue and white beaded necklaces lend the appearance of high status and material wealth. A lizard-skin bundle of bishimba is held on the chest with a leather strap. A goat horn charge, filled with bishimba and sealed with animal hide is tied to the proper right arm. The umbilicus is packed with a magical charge, the exterior of which is red in color. Aprons of animal hide cover the sex of the figure. Oil covers the face and shoulders, evidence of repeated ritual anointment.
Regarding monumental community power figures he observed while visiting Songye territories in 1939, the art historian and anthropologist Hans Himmelheber (1960: 406) stated: "the nganga buka, great sorcerers, of which there were only a few among the Songye, have such figures carved by professional sculptors called sende [or nsendwe, a smith]. The nganga then charges them with power to protect the local community, especially to safeguard the birth of children in their territory. All children possibly conceived by invoking the power figure or born while a particular power-figure reigns receive its name. In 1939, a great number of Kalebwe children were called 'Kima' after the power figure yankima, or 'the Father of Kima'. Once in the world, such a power figure will multiply [...] to such an extent that I found throughout the entire region small yankima statues. But this continues only as long as this yankima’s power is intact. After a while he will be replaced by another power figure (with another name and another personality).”
The sculptor that conceived a figure would endow it with desired characteristics, in hopes that once activated, the spirit who took up dwelling in the figure would employ those traits in the oversight and protection of the community. The present figure portrays an unusually powerful and complex set of characteristics. The head is massive, with relatively naturalistic proportions. The face is richly adorned with metal plates and tacks, and bears a confrontational expression with chin forward and teeth bared. In a dynamic contrast, the heavy-lidded eyes, with downturned outside corners, offer a sorrowful, compassionate expression. Thus the viewer feels both terror at being confronted with a menacing grimace, and also simultaneously empathy and awareness of human suffering. One can imagine that this powerful work won the confidence of the community with aggressive power, and also provided a measure of peaceful comfort with its tender humanism.