Songye Giant Ceremonial Kifwebe Face Mask Specifications: 66 x 36.5 x 23.5 cm. Origin: Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo & Zambia, Medium: Timber Carving & pigment.
The history of the Songye is closely linked to the Luba's, to whom they are related through common ancestors. According to tradition, Kongolo, the founder of the first Luba empire in the sixteenth century, was a Songye. Having waged war against one another for a long time, the Songye and Luba later formed an alliance to fight the Arabs. In 1887, in order to prevent annihilation, a Songye subgroup, the Nsapo, moved to Lulua territory and, by virtue of this migration, created an original style of sculpture.
The social structure was headed by a chief assisted by innumerable secret societies. Originally, the initiation of young boys took place within the framework of the buhishi institution, but this disappeared at the beginning of the century. The Songye used a large number of fetishes and amulets, called boanga, to ensure their success, fertility, and wealth and to protect them against hostile forces such as lightning, as well as against diseases such as smallpox, very common in that region. The fetishist would make the boanga with magic ingredients which he crumbled and mixed, thus obtaining a paste that was kept in an antelope horn hung from the roof of the house. When the head of a family needed to travel, he had a new one made which he carried with him.
Divination allowed the Songye to discover the causes of a misfortune. The diviner, the nganga, would ask questions of the consulting party, who would be holding an instrument the diviner would strike.
Besides the amulets, which do not always have a human shape, large figures are found belonging to the fetishist, who would manipulate them with sticks during the ritual of the full moon. These figures adopt a hieratic posture, the hands placed on a pointed abdomen; they have an elongated face with a rounded forehead, large almond-shaped eyes, heavy bulging eyelids, and a bean-shaped mouth; the neck sometimes has rings around it, and the shoulders are square. On top of the head, a horn or feathers reinforce a disquieting appearance. The face is covered with nails, a reminder of smallpox. Bands of copper or brass increase the magic power of the statue, which is dressed in feathers and skins and carries a small bag of potions. The enormous feet are incorporated into the base, an approach one also finds among the Chokwe. Fetishists used statuettes mounted on a pedestal, magic contents attached with a nail to the top of the skull.
As part of the bukishi association, in charge of initiations, the bwan ka bifwebe became the primary secret society at the beginning of the century. It taught the great Songye myths and the symbols linked to nature and exercised political and social control that it shared with the tshite, the notables.
In the Songye language, a mask is a kifwebe: this term has been given to masks representing spirits and characterized by striations. The mask is also used by the Luba, but the Songye mask is more angular and may assume different forms. Depending on the region, it may be dark with white stripes, or the reverse. Buffalo masks with a brown patina that have no stripes were used in hunting rituals.
According to J. W. Mestach (I 985), the classical kifwebe is male when it has a white crest; it is colorful and "dances" during the day. In contrast, the female mask, mostly white, has only a small crest and its stripes are closer together and finer. These two types of masks appear either in pairs or in groups at popular celebrations. For Plasmans, the symbolism of the striped mask is obvious: the face is the symbol of power and hallucinatory strength; the right side stands for the sun and the left for the moon. The stripes are supposed to be reminiscent of the bongo antelope-rather than the zebra, which, for all practical purposes, does not exist in this region. The grooves express the subterranean region from which the spirits who created the association came. According to one of the Songye creation myths, God sent a primordial couple to earth to cultivate the land; hence, the striations would recall the cavern from which the first humans emerged, as well as their trip through the womb. Striations are a form of writing with a double meaning: the path or roadway of the
dead who await rebirth. Likewise, the nose is both the vertical axis and the tree of life. The mouth is the bird's beak or the sorcerer's fire. The mask has a supplicatory function and, according to the Songye themselves, the person with full lips is supposed to speak loudly. The beard expresses wisdom and strength. The wearer of the mask, his body entirely hidden under a long skirt of fibers braided into netting, wears a headdress surmounted by a plume that consists of a cylinder holding magic materials that ends in a tuft of feathers. The position of this plume is significant; raised, it is the male spirit; lowered, the female.
The kya ndoshi mask is very powerful and much feared: larger than the others, it has black and colored stripes. The whole, consisting of mask, wearer, and costume, symbolizes the cosmic tree that links earth to heaven and the subterranean world to the world of air.
The Songye sculptor also makes numerous objects: cups, seats, drums, mortars, canes, dancing sticks, shields, and very small eyeless masks which were hung in the hut. As a specialist, he enjoyed an elevated rank in the bwadi society.
The Kuba kings appreciated the large Songye statues for their magical power; in a photograph taken in 1910, four Songye statues are seen included as part of the royal treasury. The style has remained very stable and ranges from @ kind of "cubism" to a more marked expressionism.
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