Chokwe red and white mask
Detail: Wood carved and red painted Chokwe Mask
Chokwe red and white mask. The Chokwe are spread out over a wide area in the eastern Angola, southern DRC and Zambia. Their history dated back to the 15th century, when a Lunda queen married a Luba prince Chibinda Ilunga. A significant member of the Lunda aristocracy so disapproved of the marriage that they migrated south to present-day Angola. Once settled, they founded several kingdoms, each headed by a god-king. Around 1860, following a major famine, the Chokwe people migrated back and settled in Angola, at the source of the Kwangi, Kasai and Lungwe rivers. The Chokwe are governed by a king called Mwana Ngana, who distributes hunting and cultivation areas. The male Mugonge and female Ukule societies regulate their social life. They are vigorous and courageous hunters and agriculturists, who used formerly to engage in the slave trade. Their dynamic spirit is also reflected in their art.
The most powerful and important Chokwe mask is known as chikunga. Highly charged with power and considered sacred, chikunga is used during investiture ceremonies of a chief and sacrifices to the ancestors. These masks are made of barkcloth stretched over an armature of wickerwork, covered over with black resin and painted with red and white designs. Only the current chief of a group wears Chikunga. The mukanda masks play a role in male initiation. The mukanda is an initiatory institution through which religion, art, and social organization are transmitted from one generation to the next. Mukanda training lasts from one to two years. Boys between the ages of about eight and twelve are secluded in a camp in the wilderness, away from the village. There they are circumcised and spend several months in a special lodge where they are instructed in their anticipated roles as men. As part of their instruction, the boys are taught the history and traditions of the group and the secrets associated with the wearing and making of masks.
In the past some masks played important roles in religious beliefs and institutional practices, many other Chokwe masks have come to be used primarily for entertainment. Itinerant actors wearing these masks travel from village to village, living on gifts received at performances. Most masks are carved from wood. The most popular and best-known entertainment masks are chihongo, spirit of wealth, and pwo, his consort.