Modern Chokwe mask?

Q:  My grandparents got this mask in Botswana on one of their hunting expeditions. They stopped traveling 25 years ago, so I know the mask is at the very least that old. They collected 100+ masks over all the years they were traveling to different countries and since they are in their 90s now they don’t have very good memories and couldn’t provide me with any more detail than the mask coming from Botswana.

The face is 9 ½” long and 6 ¾” inches at its widest point. The headpiece has a diameter of 9 ¼”. Sliced wooden sticks create the foundation for the headpiece, with a burlap-type material stitched to it, followed by the “hair” that is held in place where there is a braid going down the center of the head. About half of the teeth are missing, I’m not sure of the material used for them. The “freckles” are indented but don’t go all the way through the mask.

I haven’t been able to find any masks resembling this one and was wondering if you could add any insight. Also, It was my grandparents who wrote Botswana on the back of the mask, does this have a negative impact on it?  Michelle, 1180

A:  I was surprised to see Botswana written on the back because none of the people there have any history of masquerade. However, both Angola and Zambia, which touch the northern border of Botswana, are home to the large Chokwe ethnic group who are big mask users. This mask is new, modern in style, and can be worn comfortably. Though it was probably sold to a runner, market stand, and then your grandparents, it could just as easily been used in culture.

An irony of African mask collecting is that most of the ones for sale look exactly like the old masks you see in books and museums, whereas the masks actually being danced in ceremonies today are usually made in different styles and with different techniques. Americans and Europeans want old and used, so the industry makes sure they get what they want for their collections. Like so much else, folk art continues to evolve.  C

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