SONGYE, COMMUNITY POWER FIGURE, CONGO
Late 19th/Early20th c.; Carved wood, fiber, feathers, beads, rope, horn; On stand: 39" x 13" x 10"; Provenance: Collected in the 1960s in the DRC (Kabinda Region); Allan Stone Collection, New York
Sale Price: $12,500
Estimate: $20,000 - $40,000
ALL NOTES IN PRINT
Throughout the Congo Basin in Central Africa, tribal peoples of the Bantu culture believed that spirits, whether benevolent or malevolent, would interfere in daily affairs. They used objects (wooden figures, clay pots, gourds) to contain these spiritual powers or spirits. An object became a nkishi or nkisi (pl. minkisi / mankishi / zinkisi) when empowered by a ritual specialist (nganga) who filled it with magic and with medicines (bilongo) that gave it the power to intercede between ancestral spirits and the living. The figures essentially served as containers for powerful magic and medicine conjured from organic matter added by the ritual specialists whose knowledge of flora and fauna, understanding of the social order and insight into human nature gave them - and still gives them - powerful ascendancy over the minds of the people and over the imagination of society as a whole. Minkisi safeguard a community's well-being by assuring fertility, protecting against illnesses and witchcraft, providing success in hunting and generally keeping evil at bay. They could also be used for evil, to aid in the misfortune, sickness and death of foes. Collective consultations occurred following specific dreams or nightmares, and recurrently during celebrations. Central African power figures are among the most recognizable minkisi identified with African art. Power figures were collaborative creations of the sculptor and the nganga. The activity of carving was considered profane, and without many strictly proscribed aesthetic requirements, allowed for the sculptor's invention and idiosyncracy. The nganga then applied medicines or ritual substances and offerings, typically through an animal horn inserted into the crown of the sculpture's head or through a concavity in the stomach. The two main categories of magical figures, community and personal, differ in size and usually in the content of their covering paraphernalia. Personal figures are smaller than community figures and interact with the familiar spirits who are associated with the same transitory, earth-bound realm as the evil, wandering spirits of sorcerers. For the most part the spirits invoked by the personal mankishi are benevolent. Sculpturally, Songye power figures exhibit some of the most elegant and sophisticated forms in all of central African art. Where Kongo carvers maintained certain sculptural formulae according to the nature of the problem requiring the nkisi's assistance, Songye carvers possessed great artistic freedom and favored powerful expressionism. As a result, Songye power figures are variously menacing, exuberant, mischievous, unruly, and sometimes terrifying. This power figure was made by the Kalebwe, a Songye group situated between Tshofa and Kabinda. In terms of style the Kalebwe-type community figures embody the most distinct and homogenuous elements in central Songye figure sculpture. The sharp angles, projections and slight curves are tightly controlled.
Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa, Collections, Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org) Dumouchelle, Kevin D. Power Incarnate - Allen Stone's Collection of Sculpture from the Congo. Greenwich, CT: Bruce Museum, 2011 Hersak, Dunja, Reviewing Power, Process, and Statement: The Case of Songye Figures, African Arts, Summer 2010, Vol. 43, No. 2, pp. 38–51 Hersak, Dunja. Songye Masks and Figure Sculpture, London: Ethnographica, 1986, pp. 150, 168-169 Neyt, François. Songye. La Redoutable Statuaire Songye d'Afrique Centrale. Antwerp: Fonds Mercator, 2004, p. 174, pl. 135
Yale Van Rijn Archive of African Art - id # 0031686 Songye figure - id # 0065753 (Montbarbon/Vidal) See also: Terrisse, André. "L'Afrique de l'Ouest, berceau de l'Art Nègre". Paris: Nathan, 1965, p. 141, pl. 156