The Songye created impressive statues and masks with very powerful traits, used by secret societies. The statues often have accessories and are notably covered in plates of metal nails. The vastness of the territory explains the wide variety of styles.
Songye magical statues assured the well being of the village. They have a hieratic attitude. There are some very large cubist statues that contain magical substances either in their stomachs or in the horns fixed to their heads. Generally, the Songye statue is standing with its hands on its pointed belly and looking straight ahead. The faces are long and powerful; the forehead rounded, and with big almond shaped eyes and heavy bulging eyelids. The mouth is often in the form of a horizontal eight.
Songye masks are called Kifwebe. In the language of the Songye this signifies mask. This name was given to a mask covered in linear, incised scarification marks, representing a spirit. Some masks are masculine, and are very impressive with their sagittal crests. Others are feminine and have less spectacular plastic form. Songye masks can also be identified by the large number of parallel lines, sometimes polychrome, that decorate the faces and which have the same formal characteristics as the statues.
The Songye live in Zaire in a region crossed by the River Lomani and delimited to the west by the River Sankuru. Farming is their main activity.
The history of the Songye is linked to that of the Luba people as they share a common ancestry. The founder of the Luba Empire in the 16th century was in fact a Songye named Kongolo.
The Songye are a patrilineal society known for their magical statues and their masks. They have a main or central chief. His role demands that he shows no strong emotions, has no physical contact with the villagers and does not drink in public. Local chiefs allocate the land to the villagers. A powerful secret society, ‘Kifwebe’, counterbalances their power.
The Songye use a great number of fetish figures and amulets that they call ‘boanga’, to obtain success, wealth, fecundity and which allows them to escape hostile forces such as thunder, and illnesses like smallpox. The priest made the boanga thanks to the magical substances that he mixed together; making a paste that was then placed in a horn on the roof of the house. If the family chief had to go away for any reason, a horn filled with these magical substances was made so that he could carry it with him.
Divination could uncover the cause of misfortune. In order to do this, the diviner or ‘Nganga’’, questioned the victim of the misfortune.
As well as these amulets (that were not always in human form also found), the Songye also make tall statues that belonged to the priest and which he manipulated with the help of sticks during the full moon rituals.
Songye magical statues assured the well being of the village. They have a hieratic attitude. The Songye fetish figures are great in number and vary in size from 10 – 130 cm. Generally masculine, they stand on a circular base. There are some very large cubist statues that contain magical substances either in their stomachs or in the horns fixed to their heads. As a general rule, the Songye statue is standing and has a lengthened bust, its hands on its pointed belly and it is looking straight ahead. The faces are long and powerful, the forehead rounded, with big almond shaped eyes and heavy bulging eyelids. More often than not the eyes are half closed or outlined with encrusted cowrie shells. The mouth may take diverse forms: most often resembling a horizontal eight or otherwise a slit, in a crescent or bean shape. The chin is square or pointed and very prominent. The nose has a triangular or diamond shape. The shoulders are square. At the top of the head, a horn and/or feathers emphasizes the disturbing aspect of the statue. Songye statues are sometimes covered in copper or brass, pearls or nails in order to reinforce their magic power and to battle against the evil forces and redirect the thunder towards them. These statues, sometimes dressed in feathers and snakeskin, with metal necklaces and bracelets, carry magical bags that contain remedies to increase their power. They often have a hollow in their abdomen or on the top of their heads which can hold magical substances. The priests used these statues mounted on a base and with a magical charge fixed to the head with a nail. Songye statues are linked to white magic. Sometimes these statues are hung inside houses by a little hook under their arms. The large fetish figures, of which the main role was to protect the community, were placed in small huts. The smaller fetish figures were reserved for personal use and protected the individual against illness or death. The fetishes were often handled around the time of the new moon. The western style is influenced by the Luba, who have statues with similar characteristics but which have a sideways look. The oriental style statues often wear a Kifwebe mask. These statues come from the south of Songye territory and often have a long ringed neck.
The style of fetish figures may vary according to their regional geographical provenance. The statues from the north have a square chin, whilst the Kibeshi style statues have a pointed one.
Songye or Kifwebe Masks
Songye masks are called Kifwebe. In Songye language this means mask. This name was given to a mask covered in linear, incised scarification marks, representing a spirit. The mask is rectangular and the long nose is placed between two globular eyes. Certain masculine masks have a very impressive central crest; others are feminine and have a less spectacular plastic form, notably with a smooth headdress. Songye masks can also be identified by the large number of parallel lines, sometimes polychrome, that decorate the faces that have the same formal characteristics as the statues. The Kifwebe is also worn by the Luba, but the Songye mask is less angular and may take different forms. Depending on the region, it is dark with white stripes, or the reverse. The Songye Kifwebe is masculine when it has a white crest. Colourful, it dances in the daytime. In contrast, the feminine mask is mainly white and has only a small crest with narrower, finer stripes. The Kifwebe mask is representative of a very important universe that incorporates all things cultural, natural, and powerful. The Songye Kifwebe masks are linked to black magic and hold a very important position in regards to social and political control. Both the feminine and masculine masks appear as a pair or in a group during festivities. During initiations, circumcisions, funerals, a dancer entirely covered in vegetable fibres makes an appearance. The wearer of the masculine mask adopts an aggressive and unpredictable attitude destined to promote social conformity. The feminine masks adopt softer more controlled movements whose aim is to favour female fertility. Representations of Kifwebe masks can be found on objects used by the secret society, notably shields.
The wearer of the mask is entirely covered by a skirt of plaited fibres. He wears a headdress made with a tube containing magical substances and surmounted with feathers. The position of a feather has its own signification: erect it represents the masculine spirit, horizontal, the feminine spirit.
There is also a mask bigger than the Kifwebe that is called Kya ndoshi. It is very powerful and greatly feared. It has both black and coloured strips. The mask, its wearer and the costume symbolize the cosmic tree that links the earth to the skies or the underground world to the terrestrial one.
Songye sculptors also made seats, cups, mortars, drums, dance staff, shields and even small blind masks that were hung in the houses.
The Luba-Songye Sub -Style
Some sculptures are stylistically close to and intermediaries between the Songye and the Luba. The power and cubism of the Songye is softened by the delicateness of the Luba style.
The Sapo Sapo: A Songye Group in the Kasai
A Songye group called the Sapo Sapo settled in the Kasai province in the 19th century to escape Islamization. Their sculptures are similar to those of the Songye, but with several differences, notably a more evolved realism, a Luluwa influence, on the forehead the presence of a tattoo similar to the cross of the Tscokwe. The Sapo Sapo are skilled blacksmiths and excel especially in axe making.