Artist: Chokwe peoples
Period: 20th century
Dimensions: H. 28.5cm W. 23.5cm Depth: 20.0cm
This elegant mask, meant to honour a female ancestor, is among the most well-known of Chokwe mask types. Called pwo (woman), it strikes a refined balance between stylization and naturalism. Typical stylistic characteristics include the coffee-bean shaped eyes set in hollowed eye sockets and the curved c-shaped ears. Slightly parted lips reveal filed teeth, traditionally considered an appealing feminine attribute. Sculptors often used real women as inspiration, and this may have been the case with the Lang mask, given the incised scarification patterns, raffia hairstyle, and adornments.
The history of pwo demonstrates the fluidity of African masking traditions and provides an example of transformations in meaning and use that can occur. Pwo was originally believed to portray a mature mother and appeared during boys' initiation rites. Features such as the curves of dash-like lines found under the Lang mask's eyes, for example, emphasize this interpretation by representing the tears that mothers cry when their children transition to adulthood. In recent times, Chokwe also refer to this mask type as mwana pwo (young woman), describing it as a maiden who is ready for marriage and children. It is also danced at more general public performances.
Both interpretations share the belief that the female ancestor’s spirit animates the mask and bestows fertility on spectators. The emphasis on female ancestry and fertility directly relates to the matrilineal descent pattern of the Chokwe. Pwo often appears with her male counterpart mask, cihongo, a spirit believed to confer prosperity. Together, they represent the twin blessings of fertility and prosperity necessary for a community to flourish.