|REVISITING THE PWO
by Manuel Jordan
|Pwo mask. Chokwe, early 20th century. Wood, clay, fibers, pigment; 20cm (7.9").
Birmingham Museum of Art, Museum purchase, 1998.6.
Pwo masks, made by Chokwe and related peoples, are a well-known but understudied genre of African art.
Facial features and scarification details, including masoji, or tears, below the eyes, are balanced and well
proportioned in this example. The clay-packed wig is reminiscent of those favored by women in areas of
Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo a few decades ago . Photo: Dick Beaulieux
|Chikufwinda tuhu mwosi nchawa. "It is smoking but there is no firewood."
Anthropologist Victor Turner documented this Lunda-Ndembu proverb in Zambia, and with the aid of an
interpreter he provided the following explanation: "Often a lot of smoke comes from a kitchen, but on inspection
there are no more than one or two pieces of firewood; one must not be deceived by imposing external
appearances, for in reality there may be little substance behind them."
Since the 1930s the systematic documentation of various aspects of the life and culture of Chokwe, Lwena
(Luvale), Lunda, and other related peoples of Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zambia has
greatly increased, thanks to the efforts of scholars such as Hermann Baumann (1935), Jose Redinha (1965,
1974), Charles M. N. White (1961), Marie-Louise Bastin (1961, 1982), Victor Turner (1967), Gerhard Kubik
(1971), and Manuel L. Rodrigues de Areia (1985) . Recent field work pursued by anthropologists and art
historians including Filip de Boek (1991), Manuela Palmeirim (1994), Elisabeth Cameron (1995), Boris Wastiau
(1997), Sonia Silva (1998), and this author (Jordan 1996) has added to the body of knowledge established in
previous generations. All of us have benefited from the rich accounts provided by explorers and ethnographers
such as Hermenegildo Capelo and Robert Ivens (1881), Serpa Pinto (1881), Verney L. Cameron (1877),
Henrique A. Dias de Carvalho (1890), Fonseca Cardoso (1919), Dugald Campbell (1922), and others who
traversed the lands of these central African peoples more than one hundred years ago.
In all, there is a significant amount of ethnographic material and a number of excellent anthropological studies
that range in focus from the economy of the region to its ritual practices and cos-mological views. However, in
many ways the study of its arts is in its infancy. To return to the proverb at the beginning of this essay, in terms
of Chokwe and related peoples, the only pieces of fire¬wood in the art historical kitchen were placed there by
one dedicated scholar, Marie-Louise Bastin, whose oeuvre remains the main source for any consideration of
Chokwe art. Her postulated styles of Chokwe sculpture (Bastin 1976,1982) and the sculpture of the Lwena,
Songo, Ovimbundu, Ngangela, and others (Bastin 1971) have given us a solid basis for attributing to these
peoples countless works of art in private and museum collections.4 Bastin's numerous scholarly contributions
provide a core theoretical (art historical) model that invites further analysis. These arts are so diverse and
complex that even some of the more well-known forms remain vastly understudied or misunderstood.5
To illustrate this point, this article will focus on Pwo ("woman"), a popular ancestral mask character, or akishi,
for Chokwe, Lwena (known as Luvale in areas of western Zambia), Lunda, and their neighbors.6 Pwo is a
familiar face in most museum and private collections (Fig. 1).
Pwo mask. Chokwe, early 20th century. Wood, fibers, metal, shell, pigment; 25.4cm (10").
The University of Iowa Museum of Art, Stanley Collection, 1986.545.
This mask exhibits Chokwe stylistic traits such as the half-closed, almond-shaped eyes within concave eye
orbits, filed teeth, and C-shaped ears. Its fine coiffure is partially carved in wood as an extension of the
mask. The metal tacks and shell are meant to beautify and honor the female ancestor represented.
Pwo mask. Chokwe, late 19th/early 20th century, field collected by Frobenius. Wood, clay, fibers, metal,
pigment, fur, snakeskin, and other materials; 21cm (8.3").
Collection of Mr. Helmut F. Stern.
This elegant and expressive mask successfully blends stylized and naturalistic facial features. The forehead
displays an unusual version of the chinge-lyengelye cross motif, a scarification design commonly interpreted in
the literature as a version of the imported Portuguese Cross of the Order of Christ. Cross motifs have been
found in rock engravings and paintings in Angolan archaeological sites.
|Pwo, Dundo Style
The most discernible elements of a Chokwe style of wooden mask carving have been well defined. Bastin
describes their Pwo masks (Figs. 2):
In the wooden masks, the eyes are usually elliptical or almond-shaped and generally half-closed. The swollen
eyelids are prolonged down to the center of the concave eye-sockets. Sometimes the eyes are globular and
have horizontal slits. Occasionally the forehead has a carved head-band. The ears are nearly always curved or
else semi-circular with the tragus shown. The traditional scarifications are usually engraved, cut away, incrusted
or carved in relief.
To this list of elements one may also add the sharply defined mouth, partially open, its protruding flattened lips
framing filed triangular teeth. Bastin's close observation of numerous Pwo mask examples at the Museu do
Dundo in Angola, as illustrated in her book Art decoratif tshokwe (1961), helped her reaffirm what she called
Chokwe "traditional canons" that reflect the "collective concept of ancestral spirits" (Bastin 1982:90). The study
of art styles found in a Portuguese-sponsored museum located in Chokwe territory brings forth several issues
that are relevant to this contemplation of Pwo masks.
One important Dundo museum photograph (Fig. 3) shows 30 Pwo masks displayed on glass shelves in the
Sala da Crenca Animista, or "Room of Animist Belief." They are part of a collection that in the 1950s included
110 wooden masks, including numerous Pwo examples, and 67 fiber-and-resin masks of various types (Porto
1999:104-5). The masks illustrated in this photograph confirm the general accuracy of Bastin's description of
this style for the Chokwe: all of them share similarities in the stylization of the eyes, in the formal treatment of
the mouth, nose, and ears, and, in most cases, in facial scarification details.
Thirty Pwo masks on display at the Museu do Dundo. From Fontinha 1997:29, fig. 49.
Dundo is a town in northeastern Angola near the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Chokwe and other related peoples share similar mask-making traditions on both sides of the
|However, there are obvious differences in the conception of these masks. Some tend toward naturalism, while
others exhibit varying degrees of stylization, particularly in the eyes and mouth as well as in the overall
contours of the face, which may be oval, angular, or elongated. Even if one allows for individual artistic
creativity as an influence in this variation (Bastin 1982:90), the fact remains that not all the masks in the Dundo
photograph are "purely" Chokwe. In fact, some are catalogued as Shinji (western neighbors of the Chokwe in
northeastern Angola), and others are similar to masks documented among the Songo in central Angola,
though they may not necessarily carry that attribution (Jordan et al. 1998: fig. 60). A couple of other masks in
the photograph show Upper Zambezi stylistic tendencies: they suggest a transitional style between
stereotypical Chokwe and Lwena/Luvale styles, an exchange of influences acknowledged by Jose Redinha
(1965:36-37), who collected most of the Museu do Dundo's pieces (Fig. 4).
Pwo mask. Lwena or Luvale, early 20th century. Wood, fiber, pigment; 20.3cm (8").
Private U.S. collection.
Probably of Lwena manufacture, this mask combines Chokwe and Lwena stylistic
tendencies. This style of Pwo, with its particular treatment of the hair, is favored in
areas of western and northwestern Zambia, where the Lwena are known as Luvale.
|Bastin explains that a Lwena style of carving (related to that of the Chokwe) is distinguished by the "gentleness
of its lines," a tendency toward naturalism, and a taste for round and full forms (1969:49). Lwena Pwo masks
sometimes incorporate tall, rounded coiffures (Figs. 5-7). Although not shown in the Dundo photograph, at least
a couple of Pwo examples in the museum accurately fit the Lwena style description (Bastin 1961: figs. 261, 262).
However, a large number of Dundo masks depart from an essentially Chokwe stylistic canon and inconclusively
hint at other attributions.
Pwo mask. Lwena or Luvale, early 20th century. Wood, metal, string, pig¬ment; 27.9cm (11"). The
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The John R. Van Derlip Fund, 89.15.
The tall, rounded coiffure with incised lines probably indicates the high status of the female ancestor
represented. Pwo, or "woman," is a generic term for such masks, but specific masked ancestral spirits
may be addressed using the actual name of the woman/ancestor meant to be honored by the community
or by the family hosting an initiation camp.
Pwevo/Pwo mask. Luvale or Luchazi, mid-20th century. Wood, fibers, pigment; 20.3cm (8").
Private U.S. collection.
In Zambia, where this mask was probably collected, the Luvale and Luchazi name for Pwo is Pwevo.
Luvale and Luchazi mask-carving styles are closely related. In the case of masks such as this one, it is
almost impossible to make a distinction.
Pwo mask. Lwena, early 20th century. Wood, feathers, fiber, metal, leather, pigment; 31.1cm (12.3").
Private European collection.
This example conforms to a defined Lwena style that is distinguished by gentle lines, a tendency
toward naturalism, and a taste for round, full forms. In 1997 I showed a photo of this mask to various
Zambian friends (Luvale, Lunda, and Chokwe), who said the mask represented a female chief. Its
elaborate coiffure, feathered headdress, and overall elegance were key to this interpretation.
|Most of the masks were originally collected under Redinha's direction, and others were acquired by Hermann
Baumann; both men pursued independent collecting campaigns through parts of central, eastern, and
northeastern Angola from the 1930s to the 1950s (Areia 1995:11-18).14 To some extent the stylistic variation
evident in the photograph may be attributed to a combination of elements, but it most probably reflects a
sampling of styles and substyles favored in different areas. Because Bastin gained access to the Dundo
collection in the 1950s, when all these Pwo masks were in the context of a Chokwe stronghold, she never
approached the pieces in their diversity but rather saw them through the eyes of local Chokwe informants. As
familiar as these masks may seem, we still do not have a grasp on the stylistic complexities of the region, a
problem compounded by the lack of documentation for these and many other collected masks.
Carvalho's early (1890) illustration of a Chokwe mask performer (Fig. 8) is relevant to this argument. The
performer wears a face mask (identified as Pwo in Bastin 1982:90) that does not clearly fit within the described
canons of a Chokwe style. Its subtly conceived anthropomorphic face has open, round eyes and mouth and is
devoid of scarification details. This mask actually has more in common with Lwena/Luvale and Luchazi
examples documented in eastern Angola and western and northwestern Zambia (Fig. 9; see also Jordan et al.
1998: figs. 64, 66, 67; Felix & Jordan 1998) than it does with most of the masks collected for the Dundo
museum and attributed to the Chokwe.
This illustration of an Angolan Pwo performer was published by Portuguese explorer Henrique
Carvalho (1890:245). The mask is similar to examples found among Lwena and Luchazi in Angola
south and east of the town of Mexico in Angola and in areas of western and northwestern Zambia.
Pwevo/Pwo mask. Luchazi, early 20th century. Wood, fibers, pigment; 20.3cm (8").
Molly and Walter Bareiss Family Collection.
This mask, probably a Zambian or Angolan Luchazi example, resembles the one illustrated by Carvalho in its
rounded facial contours and open eyes and mouth. Elements of a Chokwe Pwo carving style are still evident,
but the treatment of forms reflects a different aesthetic. The style is less idiosyncratic but equally expressive
|Carvalho's illustration supports the idea that in the late nineteenth century at least two clearly discernible
stylistic approaches or trends in the manufacture of Pwo masks were established in Angola. In addition to the
more elaborate tendency that remains close to Bastin's definition of a Chokwe style, as seen in the most of
the masks in the Dundo collection, there was a more minimalistic but equally refined and expressive style. The
latter is depicted in Carvalho's illustration and found in numerous Pwo examples collected in eastern and
southeastern Angola, as well as in western and northwestern Zambia. Efforts to distinguish Congolese
(D.R.C.), Angolan, and Zambian Pwo styles are beside the point. People, like good ideas, cross all
boundaries, and similar Pwo styles are commonly found on both sides of the political borders of this region.
A generalization that may have some validity supports two major (northern and southern) stylistic zones. One
lies north and northeast of Muzamba, the Chokwe "country of origin" in northeastern Angola (Bastin
1982:246), where Chokwe and their Minungu, Songo, and Shinji neighbors continue to create versions of Pwo
that depart from a Chokwe stylistic canon (Felix 1997:105-11). The second is south and east/southeast of
Mexico (in central-eastern Angola), where the Lwena/Luvale and Luchazi probably sowed their own stylistic
seeds that may have developed separately or in combination with the often distinct and subtle southern styles
of the southern Lunda, Mbunda, Mbwela, and Ngangela (Fig. 10; Felix & Jordan 1998; Kubik 1993:25, 98-99).
Pwevo/Pwo mask. Luchazi, mid-20th century. Wood, fibers, beads, pigment; 17cm (6.8").
Private European collection.
This well-documented mask was collected in a Luchazi village in northwestern Zambia. When it was
photographed in the field in 1971 (Kubik 1993), it wore a different coiffure and beaded hair decorations.
Pwo/Pwevo hair and hair ornaments are often replaced. Wooden masks are well kept and sometimes
inherited through generations.
|Within these predominant northern and southern styles, specific group attributions are often possible, but
without concrete field documentation such an exercise would remain highly speculative.
Considerable ethnic integration (marriages, alliances, clans, shared territories, shared initiation camps) occurs
in all these neighboring areas, and commissioning masks from one carver in one or another style is not
uncommon (Felix & Jordan 1998). In the case of the Dundo museum collection, it is also significant that the Pwo
masks were available to performers who wore them in dances held in the context of a Dundo "cultural village,"
where Portuguese and other European visitors constituted the main audience (see Areia 1995; Porto 1999).
Most important, a number of carvers in museum-sponsored "crafts" workshops created wooden sculptures,
including various versions of Pwo masks, "inspired" by pieces in the Dundo collection that had been collected in
widely dispersed regions of Angola (Areia 1995:174-75).21 In that context, the institution became a new source
for the imitation of stylistic canons, a development that must have affected the natural flow of ideas; masks
created in and around the town may reflect styles more common in other areas of Angola. In many ways the
Museu do Dundo was a supermarket of regional art forms divorced from most of their original cultural framework.
Ironically, the most common form of Pwo mask among Chokwe and related peoples is a nonwooden version
made from pitch or tar over a framework of bent branches to which facial details are applied in bands of white
and red cloth or paper.
Until recently (Jordan 1993; Felix & Jordan 1998) it was not given proper attention. Bastin did not have access
to such types, probably because the collectors for the Dundo museum were not interested in masks made from
ephemeral materials. That led her to note that "very few Pwo masks in resin are known," although she provided
an accurate description of the type: "...the features are standardized but less pronounced. A sort of rectangular
domino in red cloth normally covers the eyes and nose. The mouth is small" (1982:90). That description
generally applies to such masks representing male and female characters. Even today they far outnumber
similar characters in wood.
The failure to recognize the complexities of Chokwe and related art styles has in my opinion resulted in
shortcomings in the established canon. These are easily matched by those in the documented descriptions of
the context for akishi masquerades and their attributed meaning or meanings.
The importance or sociocultural relevance of Chokwe and related masquerades has consistently been
dismissed by scholars, who usually treat the subject as peripheral to what they deem to be more important ritual
processes or symbolic structures. C. M. N. White (1948:13) most clearly expresses his lack of interest in what he
seems to see as evidence of the "degeneration" of the culture of a distant past. White comments on Lunda and
Luvale masquerades in Zambia:
The circumcision ceremonies of the Lunda and Luvale tribes are characterized by the makishi dancers—mask
dancers who vary from tribe to tribe. It is impossible to describe them in any detail here, and it must suffice to
say that they usually wear fiber costumes covering the whole body and have distinctive head-dresses, often
very elaborate. To some extent they have to-day degenerated to become itinerant clowns and lost their original
status, and this particularly refers to the mwana-pwevo.
Recent fieldwork focusing on the role of masquerades in Zambia (Cameron 1995; Jordan 1993, 1996) provides
an alternative view, documenting how akishi (makishi in Zambia) masquerades represent aspects of the shared
cosmologies of Chokwe, Lunda, Lwena/Luvale, and related peoples. Within a large repertoire of mask character
types, Pwo (Pwevo in Zambia)—the "woman" or female ancestor—and Mwana Pwo (Mwana Pwevo in Zambia;
Fig. 11)—"the young woman"—actually perform a crucial role in transmitting culturally relevant information,
mainly in the context of the mukanda male initiation. The "woman" and "young woman" masks represent ideal
and comparable models for a "fulfilled" versus a "potential" woman (Cameron 1998a, 1998b; Jordan 1998).
Such associative elements are further developed by these peoples' creation of other female mask types,
including an "immature woman," a mother, an old woman (Fig. 12), and a female chief (Jordan 1998; Felix &
A Luvale Mwana Pwevo ("young woman") mask performing during con-'irmatory ceremonies honoring
Luvale Paramount Chief Ndungu. Zambia, 1997. Photo Manuel Jordan.
A fiber-and-resin mask representing a more immature young woman, Chiwigi, is visible at right. The
masks share the positive influences of the ancestral spirits with the community and show contrasting or
comparable social and moral values.
Pwo/Pwevo mask with partial costume, mid-20th century. Luchazi or Luvale. Wood, fibers, pigment.
Private European collection.
Masks representing "old women" are mentioned in the literature pertaining to Chokwe and related peoples,
but none were identified and illustrated as such until recently. Zambian field consultants identified this Luvale
or Luchazi mask (retaining part of its original body covering) as an old woman, called Kashinakaji.
|The identification of some masks as representing female chiefs (or female ancestors perceived as bearers of
royal lineages) is based on the recent field documentation of one Chokwe fiber-and-resin mask representing
Lweji, the first Lunda female chief (Jordan 1993:50, 2000:90), together with the field identification (based on
photographs of specific masks) of various Pwo-related masks with exceptionally elaborate coiffures (Figs. 7,13),
Some of the hairstyles include consecutive arched diadems that resemble the crowns worn by male and female
chiefs in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zambia (Jordan et al. 1998: fig. 65; Felix & Jordan
Akishi masquerades, like many other art forms created by the peoples concerned here, evoke cosmological
precepts and serve to present and represent principles of social and political organization, history, philosophy,
religion, and morality (Jordan 1998:67). These principles are shared but also distinct in that they may respond to
local interpretations of broader regional or overarching cultural models. Further studies of regional art styles and
types will probably better reflect these peoples' sociocultural and political complexities, because intended modes
of representation give shape to defined (shared or distinct) values or norms.
Pwo/Pwevo mask. Luvale, early 20th century. Wood, pigment; 21.6cm (8.5").
Private European collection.
This Zambian example has a rather stoic expression, elaborate scarification details, and
consecutive arched elements above the forehead that resemble the crowns worn by male
and female chiefs. This version of a mature and accomplished woman was created to honor
a female chief or a woman in a royal lineage.
to see my Luvale Mwana Pwo mask