About the Songye Tribe
The Songye people live in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the savannah and forest land on the left of the River Lualaba. They are related to the Luba who share some of the principles of their craftsmanship and who also call their masks kifewebe. For the Songye, pottery is for women while carving, weaving and metalwork are done by the men.
Songye art is strictly a subset of the tribe's fetishist traditions with most works commissioned and used by the many secret societies through which the tribe is governed. The art output of the Songye includes figures and masks. Both art groups differ greatly in style with the masks being simple and minimalistic but heavy with meanings while the statues are detailed, finished and can only be interpreted for their functions.
Songye statues come in different heights ranging from small 4-inch figures to tall 60-inch statues. The small figures are made for individual worship while the larger ones are meant for tribal ceremonies. Most of them are male figures placed on circular bases. The Songye hollow the top of the heads and abdominal cavities of their statues to fill with magical, fetish materials. These figures are mostly of priests with hands placed atop the abdomen and superstructures of horns and feathers which lend an air of reverence to the aura of the figures.
The faces of Songye statues are marked with nails, metals and other foreign materials. These are meant as connotations of smallpox and lightning from which they are meant to offer protection as well as inflict upon enemies. The statues are also believed to confer success, wealth and fertility. Songye statues are not as lifelike as Luba statues but they show a much more impressive grasp of geometric forms.
This excellence in carving non-naturalistic and standout geometric forms is the main attraction of Songye masks or kifewebe. These masks represent the spirits and come in two models: dark ones with white stripes and white ones with black stripes. White symbolizes positive principles including purity and peace, light and the moon. Another common color on the masks is red which symbolizes blood and fire, danger and evil or courage and fortitude.
The presence of a central crest on a Songye mask identifies that mask as male. The female kifewebe has no crest but plain coiffure on its head. The size of the crest on male masks determines the magic power contained in the mask. Masquerades supplement these masks with woven costumes and long raffia beards.
Songye masks are easily identified by their striations and their shapes. The eyes, noses and mouths are carved in high relief. Often, the lips form star-shaped puckers to give the masks the impression of whistling or pouting.
Male Sonye masks are danced rigorously, uncontrollably and aggressively and are mostly employed to drive the people to orderly conducts during tribal ceremonies. They act for the chief to police the crowd and to intimidate enemies. On the other hand, the female masks have controlled, gentle even graceful movements and are associated with fertility ceremonies. These female masks are also danced at night during lunar ceremonies and at the coronations of new chiefs.
Songye kifewebe masks are also believed to have supernatural healing and exorcism powers. For these functions, the sick man's mask is used. These kifewebe masks are also represented on other objects used by the tribe. One popular example is the warrior's grooved shield which bears a kifewebe mask at its center.
The Songye have a complete belief in their masks; they are rooted to their culture through them. These masks make one of the best examples of the use of expressive lines and geometric blocks in African art. Together, they make an evocative collection of sublime meanings.
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