The Embodiment of Femininity: A Pwo Mask in the Fred and Rita Richman Collection of African Art at the High Museum

Haley Lynn Jones

Fig. 2. Chokwe Artist, Angola, Mask, twentieth century, wood, fiber, metal, and pigment, 10 inches high, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Fred and Rita Richman Collection, 2002.294. Photo: Mike Jensen.

Mask (2002.294) from the Fred and Rita Richman Collection at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, presents an opportunity to explore ideas of gender, performance, and materiality in Central African art. This mask is identified as a Chokwe Pwo mask, a mask type used primarily in boys’ initiation rites in which they transition to manhood (mukanda). This essay will present an overview of the cultural and social context in which the Mask was made and used, begin an analysis of its visual and material form and significance, and suggest conservation treatments to ready the object for display in the High Museum’s African art gallery. I will argue that, in addition to serving an important function when danced in mukanda, the Pwo mask aesthetically and materially refers to the girl’s initiation rites (ukule) in its embodiment of feminine beauty ideals.

The Mask is ten inches high; is composed of wood, fiber, metal, and pigment; and is dated to approximately 1900 CE, according to the High Museum accession file (figs. 1–2). The Mask comprises three primary components: a sculpted wooden face mask, a crocheted textile hood attached to the wooden component through holes around its perimeter, and a coiffure composed of fibers also attached to the wooden face mask. The mask depicts a woman’s facial features with nearly closed eyes and a slightly open mouth with visible teeth. The artist rendered scarification marks on the chin, temples, cheeks, and forehead of the face mask through small geometric carvings that stand in slight relief from the mask’s smooth wooden surface. The figure’s ears are punctured with small holes, and a metal earring consisting of a short chain terminating in a metal coil dangles from the proper left ear only. The inclusion of only one extant earring is present in other examples of Pwo masks in major museums and private collections (see figs. 3–5). The face mask has a slightly glossy surface with striations and grain patterns of the wood easily visible. Apart from the deep brown areas of the eyebrows, lips, and scarification marks, the face mask has a reddish surface coloration that I will suggest may be symbolically significant.

  • Fig. 3. Luvale, Likishi Dance Costume Shirt and Head Cover with Pwo Mask, late 19th or early 20th century, fiber, wood, seedpods, hide, and metal, 40 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches, Brooklyn Museum, Museum Collection Fund, 36.548. Photo: Brooklyn Museum.

  • Fig. 4. Chokwe, Angola, Xassenge region, Mask: Female (Pwo), 19th–early 20th century, wood, fiber, brass, and pigment, 10 5/8 × 8 1/2 × 7 1/2 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Daniel and Marian Malcolm, Mr. and Mrs. James J. Ross, Sidney and Bernice Clyman Gifts, and Rogers Fund, 2003, 2003.288a, b. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.

  • Fig. 5. Chokwe, African, Mask (Mwana pwo), early 19th century, carved wood with hemp, overall: 8 3/4 × 8 1/2 × 7 5/8 inches, Detroit Institute of Arts, bequest of W. Hawkins Ferry, 1988.193.

This mask is in a style identified as Chokwe, corresponding with the Chokwe ethno-linguistic group of peoples inhabiting a geographic region comprising the southern Democratic Republic of the Congo, northeastern Angola, and northwestern Zambia. Though the named style of this mask corresponds with the Chokwe ethnolinguistic group, multiple regional groups participate in the mukanda initiation rite and create and use Pwo and Mwana Pwo masks in related public ceremonies, including the Luvale, Lunda, Luchazi, Mbunda, and Ovimbundu peoples. Moreover, without more precise provenance information or documentation to suggest the identity of the artist, the Chokwe style identification does not necessarily indicate that a Chokwe artist created the mask. The art of sculpting in wood is reserved for specialized and highly esteemed male sculptors in Chokwe society and is typically a hereditary profession. During the height of Chokwe political and social prosperity in the nineteenth century, court art thrived surrounding centralized chiefdoms, and some named artists are recorded especially from this period and the early twentieth century. Despite the social prestige of these artists, few named Chokwe artists are recorded in connection with specific sculptures in Western collections, as is the case for the High Museum’s Mask.

Chokwe and neighboring peoples recognize the presence of spirits, or mahamba (singular: hamba), which consist of ancestral spirits as well as spirits embodying natural forces and concepts. Mahamba regularly interact with living people and must be appeased and respected to keep illness and other misfortunes from befalling individuals and groups. Sculptures and masks carved to represent mahamba are imbued with their power. When a hamba is incarnated in a mask, it is known as a mukishi. Three primary varieties of mukishi feature in Chokwe culture, each type with its own aesthetic qualities and social function. Cikungu masks are used for special ceremonial occasions by the chief and kept hidden and secret when not in use. Mukishi a ku mukanda masks are used in mukanda and burned at the conclusion of this months-long initiation process into manhood. The final category of masks, mukishi a kahangana (dance masks), are performed in public social settings and consist of a variety of mask types with diverse roles and gendered characteristics. The High Museum’s Mask is likely an example of the dance mask Pwo (fulfilled woman) or the closely related Mwana Pwo (potential woman), with the definition of “womanhood” closely aligned with “motherhood.”

Pwo masks serve as both the embodiment of the female ancestor and the pinnacle of Chokwe beauty ideals for women and are carved by specialized male sculptors and danced by male masqueraders. Multiple sources indicate that Chokwe sculptors invite a degree of portraiture and subjectivity into their creation of Pwo masks. In order to model the features of a particularly beautiful woman, the sculptor would seize any opportunity to observe her physical characteristics and personal adornment. These observations, including measurements of the facial features, sometimes occurred through deceptive means to preserve the anonymity of the male masquerade dancer, who may look to his wife, girlfriend, or female relative as his model for ideal beauty. The relationship between the mask and the dancer who owned it was close and secretive, with the owner paying a “symbolic bride-price” to the artist and often being buried with the mask along with the returned dowry.

Fig. 6. Eliot Elisofon (American, 1911–1973), Mwana Pwo Mask Dancer, Chokwe, Zaire, near Gungu, Democratic Republic of Congo, 1970, 35mm negative no. VI-20, 13, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

In the Pwo masquerade performance, the male dancer wears a woven full-body costume, including imitation breasts (fig. 6). The dance features elegant and graceful movements and hip swaying, emphasizing feminine fertility and proper social comportment. The dance primarily occurs during the boys’ circumcision rites, or mukanda, in which boys are isolated from the town as they complete their transformation into manhood. The Pwo dance serves to entertain and honor mothers who are separated from their sons as well as to reaffirm and reinforce Chokwe gender roles. The town’s women play an active role in this process by responding negatively to Pwo maskers who represent women poorly or inaccurately, while cheering for those maskers who represent women well and asking for them by their dance names at future public performances. At the conclusion of the mukanda rites, the Pwo masker joins the mukishi a kahangana representing the male ancestor figure, Chisaluke, in a dance to commemorate the complementary relationship between men and women in Chokwe society and to dispel gendered tensions brought on by the initiation process.

Pwo masks, a dynamic art form associated with Chokwe identity rather than a static and extinct tradition, have changed in terms of their significance and usage in response to the forces of colonialism and modernity. Modern artists, writers, and museums in Angola have harnessed iconic symbols of Chokwe art such as Pwo masks for various ends, from expressions of resistance to Portuguese colonialism to attempts at the nationalistic reclamation of indigenous heritage. Pwo’s usage and relevance have expanded beyond the mukanda rites, with Pwo masquerades occurring at political rallies, NGO development workshops, and Christmas celebrations. The emergence of a new mukishi a kahangana that sometimes appears alongside Pwo, a satirical and politically charged Chiwigi figure who represents a more urban and Westernized idea of femininity, indicates the continued relevance of the Pwo mask through the currents of modernity and globalization.

I hypothesize that the reddish color of the exterior surface of the Pwo mask may have been attained through the application of a mixture of red clay and oil and that this material and aesthetic choice powerfully invoke the initiation rites of Chokwe girls. The Chokwe feminine beauty ideal is not merely fertility but fertility that has been properly cultivated and commemorated through the social process of initiation, known as ukule. At the conclusion of the rites, adult women from the community bathe the girl initiates in a mixture of red clay and oil to visually signify their transformation into fertile women upon their return to their parents. The reddish exterior of the Pwo mask recalls this milestone in a Chokwe woman’s life, further emphasizing the close relationships between fertility, initiation, and ideal beauty in Chokwe culture. In order to confirm or reject this hypothesis, which carries exciting implications for the interplay between material and meaning in Pwo masks, I propose that the Atlanta Art Conservation Center (AACC) undertake pigment testing through methods such as XRF analysis of the wooden component of the Mask to determine the presence of applied pigments or oils.

The AACC reports that the Mask is in fair condition at the time of writing. The wooden components of the mask are in good condition with no visible evidence of deterioration, as is the crocheted textile component of the mask, which is free of fraying. The fibers that make up the coiffure, however, are “severely flattened and misaligned from improper storage,” according to the AACC. This damage likely was caused by the gradual weight of the wooden components of the mask pressing down on the fibrous coiffure components, a result of storing the mask horizontally and facing up. This conservation need must be addressed through treatment to stabilize the object and prevent further degradation.

The AACC has proposed a five-step treatment plan for the Chokwe Mask. First, the object will be photographed before, during, and after treatment to create a visual record of the conservation process. Second, the surface of the mask will be cleaned with a soft brush and museum vacuum to remove a layer of dust. Third, the mask’s coiffure will be humidified to safely realign the hair to its proper orientation. Fourth, a mount will be built for display and storage to mitigate further damaging compression of the mask in the future. Finally, a technical report will be composed to describe and document the treatment. This process will stabilize the mask, correct damage resulting from extended flat storage, and prepare it for display in the High Museum’s galleries.

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