About the Chokwe Tribe
The Chokwe people are a hardy people. It is a testimony to their strength that they went from being a splinter clan of the Luanda empire to being the dominant tribe in a region spanning three countries: Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. The Chokwe farmed, hunted and traded their way to success and the influences of their transformation can be seen in their art.
Divided into several kingdoms during the 17th and 18th century, the Chokwe people formed an empire under one king in the mid-19th century. They also regulated the social life of the tribe along gender-defined societies: Mugonge for men and Ukule for women. Every aspect of the Chokwe life follows distinct tribal organization, even the artists.
There are two classes of Chokwe sculptors: the songi and the fuli. The fuli class is responsible for sculpture for the court while the songi make every day figures as well as communal sculpture. Therefore, the fuli class is responsible for turning out scepters, thrones, royal figurines, pipes and tobacco boxes. Fuli artists are hired by the important chiefs and their work bears an unparalleled refinement. The songi sculptors, on the other hand, are more versatile and they are responsible for producing charms, wooden objects and the mahamba statues found in family shrines.
Of masks, the Chokwe excel and theirs are the most popular from the region. The three most popular types are the chikunga, mukanda and the chihongo (along with its companion, pwo). Chokwe masks, whether made out of bark or carved out of solid wood, bear the same, distinctive stylistic elements. The masks represent human heads and have slit eyes, sharp noses and broad lips. Scarifications are found on the foreheads and cheeks and they are marks of beautification.
The Chikunga is regarded as the most powerful Chokwe mask. A sacred mask, charged with power, it can only be worn by the chief and is used only for his coronation and when sacrificing to the ancestors. Chikunga masks are made of barks stretched over a wicker framework. They are covered in black resin and then red and white patterns are painted on them.
The Mukanda masks are similarly made but instead of painting them in red and white, they are hemmed with pieces of colorful cloths. Mukanda masks are used in male initiation ceremonies. Young boys are taught the art of mask making as well as the history and tradition of the tribe during the months they spend away in the wilderness. Mukanda masks, are therefore, considered as translational masks championing the coming of age of young men.
The Chihongo masks used to be made for and worn by chiefs and their sons but are now considered as entertainment masks. They are made of solid wood and show gaunt features, sunken cheeks and overflowing beards. They depict accomplished elderly men. The old chiefs would wear them as they collected tributes around their realm. The Chihongo is a mask for protection and prosperity and is accompanied by the Pwo mask, a female mask personifying womanhood and fertility.
Today, the Chihongo masks are worn traveling actors and are now solely entertainment masks. Similarly, the Pwo mask has been reinvented as the Mwana pwo mask, substituting the elderly female for a young woman. Mwana pwo masks represent the fresh beauty of young women who have been initiated to the Ukule society and are ready for marriage.
The Chokwe culture is one big celebration of variations of common themes. For example, there are over 30 ways to spell Chokwe. In the same way, Chokwe masks are richly varied. They may bear the same stylistic markers but each Chokwe mask is a distinctive mask on its own.
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