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Angolan Culture and Customs: Part 2 – Chockwe Masks and Sculpture.

Hi again everyone! Let us continue our exploration of Angolan Art by examining the influence of the Chockwe. The Chokwe kingdom rose to power during the late nineteenth century, primarily because of the profitable trade of ivory, wax, and rubber with the Portuguese. Besides providing wealth, these same raw materials were used by the Chockwe to create functional artifacts which were in turn, transformed these into prestige objects. The importance of their influence can be seen in the fact that:  Chockwe Art is much sought the world over and; other ethnic groups in Angola have been greatly influenced by Chokwe art. Two types of objects particularly representative of the Chockwe approach to Art are Masks and Sculpture.

Chockwe Masks

Mask carving is one of the most popular forms of traditional art in Angola. Angolan Masks are of various types and come in different shapes, sizes, and artistic quality. Masks are often carved out of wood, bronze, and other metals, and they usually represent the spirit of lineage, clan, or family ancestors; deities; mythological figures; and even animals.

Masks are not intended to be decorative; they were believed to possess great magical powers and, therefore, could only be worn by designated people, often men, after a proper initiation or induction rite had been performed. The wearer of the mask was believed to be in communion with the spirit world of deities and departed ancestors represented by the mask. The masks were then used in initiation ceremonies such as healing, circumcision, fertility, and puberty rites.

Some of the best known examples of Chokwe Masks are the Mask of Mwana Pwo and the Mask of Chihongo. The Mask of Mwana Pwo (the young maiden), represents the female ancestor. This mask is used in puberty and fertility rituals. It is traditionally worn by male dancers dressed like women and sporting false breasts. The wooden mask has a facial appearance depicting deceased person. Its facial scarification is a symbol of the pain of death, as Mwana Pwo was said to have died young. The mask is adorned with beads, forehead cruciforms, woven headpieces, and other ornaments. Although the Chokwe ritual is performed by men, its mask is regarded as an embodiment of feminine beauty, which bestows fertility on women and prosperity on the people in general.

The male companion of Mwana Pwo is the Mask of Cihongo (spirit of wealth). The Cihongo mask is different from its female Pwo counterpart. Rather than a gaunt expression characteristic of the Pwo mask, Cihongo sports a fierce expression with wide mouth, elaborately painted white teeth, and exaggerated horizontal beard. This mask, which is carved from wood, and worn exclusively by a chief or his sons, represents age, wealth, and chiefly power and authority.

Chocke masks depict not only human faces. There are also masks that depict various animals. Animal masks are quite popular because animals often feature in the mythology of many Angolan groups. Antelope, buffalo, elephant, zebra, monkey, leopard, rhino, pig, baboon, snake, and lizard masks are common. These masks, carved primarily in wood and sometimes in metal, are beautiful pieces of art which also served primarily as ritual objects in different kinds of ceremonies, such as initiation rites.

This shows that traditional arts and crafts of Angola have historical links to the culture of its people. Art did not exist merely for aesthetic value. Art was sacred. It was an integral part of ritual performances and other traditional ceremonies and festivals. In modern Angola, a new emphasis placed on the aesthetic value of Art. Art has become become the object of museum and gallery exhibits.

Chockwe Sculpture

The Chokwe are particularly adept sculptors who have produced some of the most famous sculptures as well as ornate carvings of everyday objects. Such statues are usually carved in solid wood and sometimes adorned with decorative metal. Typical examples include statues of royal figures such as kings, queens, and nobles; powerful warriors, hunters, and healers; musicians and ceremonial dancers; ancestors and deities; and mythical beings.

Another testament to the importance of the Chockwe influence on Angolan art is the Chokwe statue the “Thinker” (“Pensador” in Portuguese). The Thinker is one of the most beautiful pieces of Chokwe origin one of the oldest artifacts in Angola. It represents all Angolans by being a symbol of national culture. The statue is can be seen as either man or a woman and depicts wisdom and knowledge. It is carved in a bent posture, hands on head and legs crossed, a posture symbolizing reflection.

In addition to statues of humans, carvings of court items and paraphernalia depict the glory, dignity, and pomp of royalty. In traditional precolonial societies, sculpture exclusively done by professional carvers known as the songi, who often worked exclusively for the court and other prominent chieftaincies. They are noted for many royal carvings including chairs, stools, decorated thrones, ceremonial staffs, spears, and scepters.

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