Africa

Decorative Mwana Pwo mask

Q: I stumbled upon your website when I was trying to research this mask. I found in my parents attic. I simply have no information on it, and I’m very curious about its origin, make and purpose. There seems to be iron detail on lips and eyes, as well as a frog shape on the forehead. The “beard” and chin is made of woven string. The rest is carved wood with no makers mark. I’m so curious! If you have any insight or just jumping off points I would greatly appreciate it! Lisa, 1680

A: You can find out plenty of information on the popular Mwana Pwo mask on Google. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one that you and I could never afford. They say “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 usually classic graphic designs, but they can also represent various animals. Also the use of wire and sheet metal on this one is unusual. Serious collectors of African masks would say this Mwana Pwo is a cheap fake you might find at an airport gift shop. They would be correct. I decided to post it on MOTW because it is so decorative. Its design, color and texture would look beautiful on the wall. And one like this should be cheap. C+

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