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Buyu Male Ancestor Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo

About the object

Buyu Male Ancestor Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Height: 18 1/8 in (46 cm)


The art of the Buyu (aka Boyo or Buye) people is famous for its elegant and highly cubistic aesthetics. Located at the sources of the Luama river, from the east of Bangubangu territory to the northwestern border of Lake Tanganyika in present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Buyu live at the heart of one of the most artistic areas of the Congo. Their aesthetic tradition is closely linked to the Hemba, Luba, Tumbwe, and Tabwa, to name but a few.

While several Buyu statues had entered European anthropological collections in the early 20th century (cf. a figure in the Museum der Weltkulturen, formerly known as the Museum für Völkerkunde, Frankfurt, collected by Drucker before 1908, inv. no. "N.S. 8 997", published in Himmelheber and Fischer 1968: cat. 70-71; a flywhisk handle in the Museum für Völkerkunde, Munich, acquired from Hugo Deininger in 1913, inv. no. "13.57.140", published in Philipps 1995: 297, cat. 4.67a; a figure in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren, collected with several others in situ by Pilette in 1913, inv. no. "R.G. 14697", published in MRAC 1995: 235, cat. 200), it was the American art impresario and philanthropist Albert C. Barnes, presumably acting on the advice of Modigliani's dealer Paul Guillaume, who made Buyu art famous by using the features of a Buyu face (the model was presumably the figure at the Frankfurt museum), as modular element for the stucco frieze surrounding the main entrance of The Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion which opened its doors to the public in 1926.

According to Biebuyck (in MRAC 1995: 372, text to cat. 200), the male and female figures were "part of the cult for ancestors, founders of small independent political entities [...]. The figurines, often occurring in ensembles comprising several named and genealogically related ancestral personages, are kept in small shrines under the authority and guardianship of a petty chief, village headman or dominant lineage elder. Throughout the territory, that is identified with the [Buyu] ethnic group, cult for individually identified ancestors (bashumbu) is practiced at different levels of the lineage structure and sometimes merged with various beliefs in nature spirits (biseko, bahombo), but few sculptures are used in these cults. In times of crisis, the senior in charge of the cult would sleep in the shrine, and with some helpers engage in invocation, praises and libations for his ancestors to obtain their benevolence and cooperation." The fine encrusted patina on the offered lot can be directly ascribed to this kind of libation ritual.

In her discussion of a related figure in the exhibition Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, LaGamma (2002: 75) adds: "The Boyo communities within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, situated along the western banks of Lake Tanganyika, are a complex blend of peoples and cultural identities. The extensive cultural interaction that underlies their heritage has led to some dispute regarding the definition and place of Boyo sculptural traditions within the broader context of the region's art history. Although scholars have described Boyo sculpture as "proto-Luba," suggesting that it might have served as the basis for related traditions in present-day southwest Democratic Republic of the Congo, there is also the idea that it was significantly informed by those same traditions.

"Boyo communities were once renowned for their series of majestic royal ancestral representations that varied stylistically from one community to another. As with comparable traditions among the Tumbwe, Tabwa, and Hemba peoples, these ancestral ensembles, which comprised between four and seven works each, were protected in small funerary enclosures. Individual sculptures were named after the particular ancestors they invoked. [...] The prominence of the closed eyes refers to the subject's status as a being endowed with a heightened sense of the spiritual realm."

The offered lot is one of the finest Buyu sculptures known. Reflecting perfection, harmony and sheer beauty in every line of its form, it provides an image of the ideal ancestor. Its style can be compared to the famous head on top of a prestige-staff in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren (inv. no. "RG 23485", published in Biebuyck 1981: cover, plates II and V, and pp. 154-159, cat. 40) which was collected in situ by O. Michaux between 1890 and 1897.


Wood (Chlorophora excelsa / Iroko wood)


Credit Communal de Belgique, Oerkunsten van zwart Africa/Arts Premiers d'Afrique Noire, Brussels, 1977, March 5 - April 17, 1977

Forte di Belvedere, Florence, La Grande Scultura dell'Africa Nera, July 15 - October 29, 1989

Musée Dapper, Paris, Le Grand Héritage, May 21 - September 15, 1992


Height: 18 1/8 in (46 cm)


L'Impasse St. Jacques (adv.), Arts d'Afrique Noire, No. 20, Hiver 1976, inside back cover

Philippe Guimiot and Lucien van de Velde, Oerkunsten van zwart Africa/Arts Premiers d'Afrique Noire, Brussels, 1977, p. 161, cat. 118

François Neyt, La Grande Statuaire Hemba du Zaïre, Louvain-La Neuve, 1977, p. 359, no. 12

Ezio Bassani (ed.), La Grande Scultura dell'Africa Nera, Florence 1989, pp. 208 and 270, cat. 136

Ezio Bassani (ed.), Le Grand Héritage: Sculptures de l'Afrique Noire, Paris, 1992, p. 245

Philippe Guimiot (adv.), Arts d'Afrique Noire, No. 99, Autumn 1996, back cover

Jacques Germain, "La Statuaire des Basikasingo", Arts d'Afrique Noire, No. 108, Winter 1998, p. 49, plates L & M


Mawazo Bin Azale, traditional and administrative chief of all Buyu clans of Kabambare territory, residing in the village of Kimano II, Maniema Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Pierre Dartevelle, Brussels, acquired from the above, 1970

Philippe Guimiot, Brussels, acquired from the above in 1996

Private European Collection, acquired from the above

*Note that the price is not recalculated to the current value, but refers to the actual final price at the time the product was sold.

*Note that the price is not recalculated to the current value, but refers to the actual final price at the time the product was sold.