The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Democratic Republic of the Congo; Songye (Bekalebwe) artist

Power figure

Wood, horn, metal tacks, snake skin

H. 89.5 cm (39")

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection of African Art, X1986.469

Most of the ethnic groups that occupy the Southern Savannah style region, from the Kongo on the Atlantic coast to the Bembe and Tabwa on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, produce power figures, often called nkisi (or "fetishes" in the art literature) which are empowered through the form of accumulated materials applied by the herbalist/healer called nganga. The forms of these objects are usually dynamic, the poses aggressive and even threatening, and the functions can be malevolent or benevolent, depending on the particular prescription that the nganga uses. The Songye produce the most numerous and distinctive of these power figures.

J. W. Mestach has studied the Songye in depth, and has provided the following notes: "The large collective community figures [including this very large example], considered most often to be benevolent, were kept hidden from view. Other malevolent figures were kept outside the village. Only priestesses were permitted to use the objects in special cults, principally during nights of full moon. The statues were carried by means of thick leather cords, which were passed through the rectangular openings beneath the arms. The benevolent statues were considered to be, among other functions, the protectors of the villages and of children who sometimes bore the name of the statue (most frequently Ya Ntambwe "lion", or Ya Nkima "monkey).

These same large Songye statues could often be found among the regalia of the Kuba king, used as objects of great power, the Songye having the reputation among the Bushong [Kuba] of masters of sorcery and fetishism" (Mestach 1984).

Professor Christopher D. Roy, 1991

Mestach, J.W. Personal communication with Professor Christopher D. Roy, 1984.