African masks and art of the Songye. The Songye people live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire). Numbering some 150,000 people, Songye society is patrilineal, and governed by a highly revered male chief. They share common ancestors and oral traditions with the Luba people of the DRC, and subsist by farming or hunting. Because rivers are believed to be the repository of the souls of revered ancestors, Songye people are extremely reluctant to fish.|
The warlike history of the Songye influences the confrontational nature of their art. Songye shields, once a vital part of the the warrior's gear, are still hand-carved of wood, and often include the intimidating face and violently zig-zagging grooves that would once have frightened the enemy in battle. These grooved patterns are typical of Songye pieces, and may represent the scarifications that Songye warriors cut into their faces. They are among the most belligerent of all African masks.
Threatening masks are also used to enforce conformity and good behavior within the community. Adult men in these masks perform angry frenetic dances as a warning of the wrath that youngsters or miscreants will face if they break the rules. Adult women dance a gentler more graceful dance to encourage motherhood and enhance fertility.
The Songye use the same strategy of intimidation to frighten away malicious spirits who cause disasters like disease, fire, floods, etc. Masks and fetishes with jarring striations, bulging eyes, and disjointed structure, are used to strike fear in the heart of the most brazen of goblins. These masks are danced by secret societies to protect the village and, like many African masks, are usually worn with a full body suit of raffia.
Songye fetishes, usually statues in the form of a man, are intended to exert magical influences. They are often hollow, to accommodate the wide range of magical substances used in casting spells. Derived from animals, plants, rocks, and even harvested from humans, these substances are said to awaken beneficial spirits who will ensure a good hunt, a bountiful harvest, or other good fortune.