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Female (pwo) mask (Chokwe peoples)

The Chokwe mask from the Democratic Republic of Congo, danced by men, honors young, fertile women and the founding female ancestor. The mask's design, including its red color, white powder around the eyes, and symmetrical face, signifies spiritual power and wisdom. The Chokwe people, part of a matrilineal society, value women highly.

Female (pwo) mask, Chokwe people, Democratic Republic of Congo, early 20th century, wood, plant fiber, pigment, copper alloy, 39.1 cm high (Smithsonian National Museum of African Art) Speakers: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

we're at the National Museum for African art and we're looking at a mask made by the Chokwe people in the democratic Republic of Congo and this mask would have been dance by a male dancer even though we're looking at a mask that represents an ideal woman the masker who's a man and the carver who's a man would have made this to honor women particularly women who were young and fertile and had successfully given birth because there was an honor in Chokwe society given to those women and this is also a culture that is matrilineal that is the family line is passed down through the mother and one of the reasons to dances mask was not only to honor women who were at this stage in life but also to recognize the founding female ancestor of the Chokwe lineage it's made of wood that's very thin and difficult to carve receive fiber and this elaborate hairstyle we have to imagine the rest of the costume that would have been here when the mask was dance and this would have been a tight-fitted bodystocking covered in raffia cloth the dancers groin area would be covered in a loincloth and he'd be wearing wooden breasts and we're using the word dance but from the descriptions the dancer walked in a very graceful and stately way and Chokwe women actually do dance like that that's very graceful and fluid and slow and respectful and when we say he's wearing a woman's face and he's wearing women's breasts he's not impersonating a woman he's really not to honor women who have courageously gone through childbirth and retain this inner wisdom and beauty so beautifully articulated in the facial features and we see that sense of calm in the face and the fact that her eyes are closed her mouth is closed suggest is turning inward she's not talking she doesn't need to talk at this point in life she deserves respect and she doesn't have to open her eyes wide she's already knowing the mask itself is a deep dark red which is probably created through a mixture of red earth and oil but there's white kalyan or white powder around her eyes and this whiteness is connected to the spiritual realm in fact her eyes are the most important part of the face their abstractly big and it draws attention to the fact that she has the spiritual ability almost of second sight that her power comes from being able to give birth the face is very symmetrical the kin comes to have narrower . the broadest part of the faces by the eyes and ears this wide forehead that is accentuated by the hairstyle and we have these constant circles that are bisected by the lines of the mouth of the eyes and then we also have the circle of the earring in the ear with this mass was obviously really lo ved in fact we can see a repair on one side of the face so that they could continue to use it we also have pounded dots around the eyes which further emphasizes their cynical nature but also suggests women's tattoo patterns women wore a whole host of different tattoo designs that had special references in special meaning to the trackway people were little known until the earlier part of the 20th century by Europeans Europeans in particular Portuguese didn't begin trading with the Chokwe until the early nineteen hundreds and so they weren't documented and such in the way that other groups were however the chalk way had been part of a larger kingdom from which they broke away they had trading relations with many groups throughout Africa and so they certainly didn't exist in isolation and there are about a million today in the democratic republic of congo and as this mask shows us the ideal woman and ideal virtues her hairstyle would have been fashionable at the time so they could really see themselves in the mask when it was being performed for them so this is an ideal of womanhood in so many ways