In Focus

A Mask for Initiation

Chokwe visual arts serve the needs of leadership and initiation of male adolescents into adult society. Chokwe masks represent spirits and were worn during the investiture of a chief and while making sacrifices to the ancestors. Masks (mukishi, singular; akishi, plural) were also worn in masquerades associated with the mukanda, the initiation institution, which was the traditional educational system in pre-colonial society. This mask was for the latter purpose. It incarnates the male ancestral spirit and symbolizes power and wealth. His consort is Pwo, who is an archetype of womanhood and encourages human fertility. Both spirits were impersonated by male dancers, one of whom was the chief or one of his sons who wore the Chihongo mask. He was dressed in a mesh skirt and leafy skirt that greatly expanded his dimensions and he carried a bell, a staff of office or a ceremonial axe, the emblems of his rank and power. He performed a "virile" dance incorporating extensive hand gestures and powerful hip movements. Accompanied by Pwo, Chihongo visited the villages in the territory and performed dances that brought prosperity and fertility.

Chokwe wooden masks are carved by adult male artists who are free to depict Chihongo according to their own interpretation of the spirit. His features are rendered in a range of styles from relatively naturalistic to abstract but he must ahve a fan-shaped chin (which may be interpreted as an elder's beard) and prominent slit eyes framed by arched eyebrows that are echoed in the shape of cheeks. The artists carves "tears" under each eye which may appear as incised parallel lines or as a raised bar pattern as on this mask. The open mouth displays filed teeth whitened with chalk or kaolin. Iron hoops made from locally fordged or imported iron adorn the ears. This Chihongo mask has retained its elaborate, fan-shaped feather headdresses of aristocratic chiefs but it does not display scarification in the form of a stylized cross or pattern at the center of the forehead. Instead, there is a raised disc representing the mid-day sun tangwe, at the top of the head. In the distant past, Chihongo, Pwo, and about thirty other "characters" probably played important roles in promoting religious beliefs and cultural values. Today, where masquerades are still performed, their purpose is to entertain.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, DMA unpublished material, 2008.