Wooden figure "Nkisi"

350 €

Songye people, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 20th century, private collection from Netherlands.

The Songye (called also Basonge, Bayembre, Songe, Wasonga) people inhabit a vast territory between the Sankuru and Lubilash rivers west and the Lualaba river in the east, vast group of villages can be found in Kasaï-Oriental, Katanga and the Kivu Provinces. Divided into thirty-five subgroups the c. 150,000 Songye people are governed by a paramount chief (called Yakitenge) assisted by elders (bakulu), ministry of elders (bubikale), nobles (bilolo) and the innumerable secret societes. Their history is closely linked to the Luba-people (Baluba), to whom the Songye are related through common mythical ancestor known as Kongolo.

The Songye livelihood has traditionally centered around farming and hunting. Because the rivers were associated with the spirits of deceased chiefs who were often buried in them, fishing was not practised except in times of great need.

The people of Songye believe in a single god, Efile Mukulu, a god acknowledged as supreme being, a divine entity, a progenitor of cosmic bodies and elements, and creator of man. Efile brings into existence eight children: the sun (nguba), the moon (mwenji), the star (lukenene), water (mema), fire (kapia), the wind (lupapi), the rainbow (nkongolo) and finally the earth (kabea ka musongo). However, the Efile Mukulu is not praised as much as ancestral spirits. Much attention is focused on familial ancestors, to whom sacrifices are made to encourage the well-being of the individual and the family.

The secret society of mask men is called Bwadi bwa Kifwebe. In the community, these men were known for their use of witchcraft (buki or buci) and magic (masende). Buci is witchcraft, as an internal force, is believed to be in the heart or stomach, while masende or sorcery is external and rests in eyes. In other words, buci is an inherent and futhermore inherited mystical power, whereas masende is a learned operation, theoretically accessible to anyone. In order to become a member (muadi) of the Bwadi bwa Kifwebe, all applicants must under an initiation process. Some of the responsible of the Bwadi bwa Kifwebe are regulating and maintaining political order and balance between the chief and his communities. The Bwadi bwa Kifwebe maintain balance within the community by conducting masquerades, rituals and rites as initiation rituals, circumcisions and funerals.

Most traditional figure sculpture of the Songye is Nkisi (pl. minkisi, called also mankishi). Mankishi are spirits of the dead that can influence the world of men. Typically, each community will have central nkisi figure as will individuals within that community. The community nkisi is kept in a hut of its own (shibo ya bwanga) and its is used to deal with communal concerns such as crop failure, widespread illness, witchcraft, sorcery or territorial disputes etc. All mankishi are assigned a guardian (nkunja or kunca), either old man or an old women. He or she is the interpreter who receives messages from the nkishi through dreams and who gives evidence of the intervention of evil spirits through states of possession. Individuals make requests to ancestors through personal nkisi figures. The power of minkisi figures depends on the spiritual ingredients (bishimba), created by the spiritual healer-sculptor (nganga) and placed within on the figure. Bishimba is usually concealed within the abdominal cavity of the figure, tied around the waist or in a horn set in the top of the figure's head. The Songye regarded the wood figure as merely a shell, activated to full power only by the addition of the bishimba composed of animal, plant, and mineral substances, including feathers of a hawk (kabemba), teeth or claws of a lion (ntembve), scales of a dangerous snake (nsanci), bones or flesh of someone who commited suicide, hair and nails of an albino (nsaka) and epileptic, umblical cords from twins etc. Others have unseen symbolic meaning, such as earth from the footprint of an elephant or material from a tree which has been struck by lightning (tufi twa mpeshi).

Unusual nkisi or power figure are carved from one piece of wood and dyed black with soot. Magical ingredients are hidden inside the figure and covered with pieces of wood and mud. Good condition. Stunning old, dark encrusted patina. Light old wood. Traces of libations and red pigment. Age-related heavy wear. Fractures, cracks and abrasion. Worm holes, dirt, dust and soil. Size are approx. 25,0cm x 11,7cm x 6,0cm. Weight c. 284g.

References, citations & sources:

Reviewing Power, Process, and Statement: The Case of Songye Figures, Dunja Hersak, African Arts, Vol.43, No.2, pp.38-51, Published UCLA, Summer 2010.

On the Consept of Prototype in Songye Masquerades, Dunja Hersak, African Arts, Vol.45, No.2, pp.12-23, Published UCLA, Summer 2012.

Community Poer Figure: Male (Nkisi), Yaëlle Biro, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018.

Songye/Songe, Africa 101 Last Tribes.

Songye, Art & Life in Africa, University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.