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Exhibited Early 20th C. Songye Nkisi Kalebwe Figure

Central Africa, northern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Songye peoples, ca. early 20th century CE. A striking "nkisi" (male) power figure, hand-carved from hard wood. The The Kalebwe-style figure is defined by a distended abdomen with a recessed navel, bar-shaped arms with blocky hands, planar shoulders flanking a wide chest, and a ringed neck, all atop attenuated legs attached to an integral circular base. The oblong head boasts a flared nose, full lips around an open mouth, incised semicircular eyes with delineated pupils, and petite ears beneath a domed head with a vertical carved hole on top. Layers of rich coffee and caramel-hued patina envelop the figure and provide for an elegant presentation. Size: 3.375" W x 10" H (8.6 cm x 25.4 cm).

Songye power figures are created to protect a community and mediate between the living and spiritual realms to cure ailments. Figures that are employed in ceremonial uses have real horns protruding from the center of the head and often also exhibit hammered brass panels which are applied to the face. Power figures are kept in a sanctuary under the care of a guardian when not in use.

The piece exhibits a few characteristics which are unique to Songye artistry. Kalebwe figures, from the northern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, tend to have chins with a square profile rather than rounded chins typical of the southern Kibeshi figures. The second feature is the hollowed receptacle at the top of the head which is intended for the insertion of fetish material, known as "bishimba," which symbolically imbues the figure with special powers. According to Jean-Baptist Bacquart, "A 'specialist', called the Nganga, then attached magical objects such as snakeskins, feathers, metal necklaces and bracelets to the figure to enhance the power even more. Occasionally these figures are suspended for apotropaic purposes inside a house by inserting a metal rod under each arm." ("The Tribal Arts of Africa: Surveying Africa's Artistic Geography." Thames & Hudson, New York, 2000, p. 168)

Exhibited at Pace Gallery in New York City in the 1990s

For a similar example with copper and snake-skin adornments, please see: Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste. "The Tribal Arts of Africa: Surveying Africa's Artistic Geography." Thames & Hudson, New York, 2000, p. 168, fig. 2.

A stylistically-similar example with undefined legs hammered for EUR 100,000 ($114,077.10) at Christie's, Paris "Arts d'Afrique, d'Oceanie et d'Amerique" auction (sale 16061, April 10, 2018, lot 83): https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot/statue-songye-kalebwe-songye-kalebwe-figure-republique-democratique-6132261-details.aspx?from=searchresults&intObjectID=6132261&sid=c1a65fb0-efed-4de7-a810-dcc7b3fc9f92

Condition: Minor nicks to head, body, arms, legs, and base, with some softening to finer features, and some insect damage around the base, otherwise intact and excellent. Light earthen deposits and fabulous, varied brown patina throughout. Old inventory labels beneath base.

Provenance: ex-private old New England, USA collection, acquired in the 1970s; exhibited at Pace Gallery, New York, New York, USA in the 1990s (small white oval sticker beneath base); ex-Peter Pollack collection, acquired in the early 1960s

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