Africa

Chokwe Pwo mask of Angola or DRC

Q:  I’m very excited about this submission! When I bought this mask I was told it is from Mali. The seller claimed it to be as old as 200 years but I have a hard time believing that (the red fabric presents an elastic hinge and I’m quite sure it comes from a modern garment). Besides it  cost me only 100 euros. The face piece is wood, but I can’t tell which kind. It has burlap parts, hay, sea shells, and feathers on top. Could it be a Dogon dance mask? Thank you for any info or opinion you will share!  Gianluca, 1495

A: I’m excited too… but sellers of African masks can be very wrong. They sometimes they even try to cheat.  Your mask is not old and comes from very far southeast of Mali. The good news is that the headdress is outstanding.

This work is an outstanding example of Pwo, a classic Chokwe mask genre that honors founding female ancestors. Such representations are especially significant given that the Chokwe trace descent through their mothers’ lines. Pwo’s joint performance with her male counterpart, Cihongo, brings fertility and prosperity to a community. The cultural ideals of these two iconic representations developed during the precolonial period continue to inspire contemporary artists in the region.

The beautiful headdress and carved wood face are classic designs that aesthetically enhanced a woman’s beauty in past generations and were signs of ethnic identity.  Chokwe masks are often performed at the celebrations that mark the completion of initiation into adulthood. That occasion also marks the dissolution of the bonds of intimacy between mothers and their sons.

This work is an outstanding example of Pwo, a classic Chokwe mask genre that honors founding female ancestors. Such representations are especially significant given that the Chokwe trace descent through their mothers’ lines. Pwo’s joint performance with her male counterpart, Cihongo, brings fertility and prosperity to a community. The cultural ideals of these two iconic representations developed during the precolonial period continue to inspire contemporary artists in the region.

Inscribed motifs on the mask’s forehead and cheeks are classic graphic designs that aesthetically enhanced a woman’s beauty in past generations and were signs of ethnic identity. The central cruciform on the forehead has been interpreted as a cosmogram while the markings on either cheek are described as a solar disc joined by tears. Chokwe masks are often performed at the celebrations that mark the completion of initiation into adulthood. That occasion also marks the dissolution of the bonds of intimacy between mothers and their sons. The pride and sorrow that event represents for Chokwe women is alluded to by the tear motif.  B+

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