The Tshokwe (Chokwe) produced a large number of masks made both from fibres and wood.
Among the Tshokwe masks is the Cihongo, a masculine mask symbolizing power and wealth, and the feminine mask Pwo representing the feminine ancestor. These are the most popular masks, imbued with nobility. For the villagers, their presence is magical and brings both prosperity and fecundity.
Pwo, the feminine Tshokwe mask is dressed like a woman ready to dance. The Tshokwe man that wears this mask makes delicate and graceful movements whilst remaining almost on the same spot. The women learn good manners through the Pwo dance. Pwo also has a very versatile nature.
Traditionally Cihongo was a mask worn by the Tshokwe chief or son of the chief. Linked to chieftaincy, this mask was hardly ever used for initiation or circumcision rites, but rather for royal ceremonies.
The majority of animal masks are made from wood. The most popular is the one that looks like a pig, characterized, in strong contrast with the other masks, by its vulgar behaviour. There are also baboon, hornbill, aardvark and antelope masks.
Among the very old Tshokwe (Chokwe) statues, figures of both the chiefs and their wives can be found. The function of these masks is today, unknown. The chief statues have large feet that symbolize their capacity for walking long distances, and large hands to represent their power.
The Tshokwe (Chokwe) live in a large territory in the north east of Angola, and also in some vast areas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (western Kasai and south west of Katanga). Their presence is more dispersed in the north west of Zambia.
Traditional and ancient Tshokwe (Chokwe) sculpture is one of the most appreciated in central Africa.
Social Organisation, Associations and Beliefs among the Tshokwe (Chokwe)
The Tshokwe (Chokwe) are considered excellent hunters, and farming is left in the hands of the women. They do not worship Gods linked to agriculture, however, they have a very active society of hunters that worship spirits favourable towards hunting.
These people have never had a centralized state, but have created instead great chieftaincies.
The Tshokwe (Chokwe) believed in a God creator called Kalunga. They call upon him in their prayers, but do not have a cult dedicated to him.
The masculine Mukanda association is responsible for the boys’ initiation. It undertakes the teaching of ancestral knowledge and circumcision.
At puberty, the girls follow a ritual destined to give them a sexual education and which also includes tattooing. After this they are ready for marriage.
This is a matrilineal society.
The Tshokwe (Chokwe) have an altar in the village where they carry out the most important rituals. This was an intermediary place between the world of the living and the dead. The size of the altar was proportional to the age of the village, and to the stability of the main lineage.
Tshokwe (Chokwe) Masks
The Tshokwe (Chokwe) produced a great number of masks, the majority of them are painted in three basic colours and made from vegetable fibres, pieces of cloth and paper:
The fibre masks are made from a resin base and a material of beaten bark, vegetable fibres, pieces of cloth, and they are all covered in symbolic paintings according to the relevant designs (eg. The solar disc is represented by a circle with a cross, a crescent for the moon, and dots for the stars…):
- White is linked to the sun and to man. It evokes strength, life, purity, truth and innocence. It is beneficial.
- Red is linked to the moon and women. It evokes weakness, impurity, evil and illness. It is a negative colour.
- Black represents witchcraft, death and night.
In this category of mask, is the sacred mask Cikungu (this mask is worn by the sovereign during his coronation and represents the ancestors of the earth chief), as well as the imported blue and the initiation masks of the young boys. The most important initiation mask is Cikunza that represents a benevolent spirit, favourable for both fecundity and hunting.
In the past, these masks were burned at the end of the initiation, but today this is no longer practiced, and the masks are preserved for as long as possible. They are restored, decorated and repainted where needed before being used, in order that they preserve their efficacy. Whilst the structure of these fibre masks made from twigs, has hardly changed, the rest has undergone some modifications. The base cloth that envelopes the mask is no longer made from beaten bark, but from jute or nylon. The coating has also changed, the hard black vegetable resin has been replaced by melted plastic or tar. Finally, synthetic paint and rubber bands now tend to replace the imported red or white cloth and paper.
Among the wooden masks is the Cihongo, a masculine mask symbolizing power and wealth, and the feminine mask Pwo representing the feminine ancestor. These are the most popular masks, imbued with nobility. For the villagers, their presence is magical and brings both prosperity and fecundity.
Pwo, the feminine mask is dressed like a woman ready to dance. The Tshokwe man that wears this mask makes delicate and graceful movements whilst remaining almost on the same spot. The women learn good manners from the Pwo dance. Pwo also has a very versatile nature.
During the shows that are open to all, this mask can be comical, or satirize both society and customs. The appearance of the Pwo perfectly illustrates the main characteristics of Tshokwe style, notably half closed eyes in the middle of very large eye sockets. But as the sculptors say that they take their inspiration from the traits of women renowned for their beauty, the hairstyles and tattoos vary from one mask to another, each mask being a virtual portrait. Pwo can also be the secret portrait of a loved one, perhaps a representation of the mask wearer’s ancestor. On the older masks, scarification marks are always present, beautiful and regular just like the teeth filed down to points which were, in the past, a sign of beauty. Copper earrings are decorated with coins, imported beads, ribbons…
Cihongo is a masculine mask that symbolizes power and wealth. Traditionally Cihongo was a mask worn by the Tshokwe chief or son of the chief. Linked to chieftaincy, this mask was hardly ever used for initiation or circumcision rites, but rather for royal ceremonies. The realism of the Cihongo face fades into insignificance next to the over emphasized characteristics: a chin and beard represented by a horizontal disc shape, big eyes that appear to be closed, a fine nose that overhangs the oversized mouth. At the top of the head there is a bandeau made from cowrie shells.
The majority of animal masks are made from wood. The most popular is the one that looks like a pig, characterized, and in strong contrast with the other masks, by its vulgar behaviour. There are also baboon, hornbill, aardvark and antelope masks.
Like the other ritualistic objects, the masks signify the relationship between the spirit and man. A mask is a living reactive force used to very specific ends: educate young men and develop their virility, promote female fecundity, resolve problems in the village, to ensure masculine domination… The mask is a fetish, charged with power and selfwill that reacts from the moment it is used. These remarks are also valid for other ritualistic objects such as statues. In effect, the originality of the Tshokwe (Chokwe) lies in the fact that they decorate all their things whether they are ritualistic or prestigious objects, and this includes the furniture in the chief’s hut too. Each motif had a name and its own specific signification. Other signs of dignity that fall into this category are pendants, glaives, chairs, thrones, axes and spears.
Statues and Diverse Tshokwe (Chokwe) Objects
Among the very old Tshokwe (Chokwe) statues, statues of both the chiefs and their wives can be found. The function of these masks is today, unknown. The chief statues have large feet that symbolize their capacity for walking long distances, and large hands to represent their power.
Ritualistic statues, associated with the possession of ‘Hamba’ are still widespread today. These figurines are most greatly represented in collections. They are mainly dedicated to fertility and hunting, and have a wide variety of styles and forms: abstract, figurative, realist.
Both the symbolic and functional nature of the seats gives an insight into religion, the hierarchical structure of its chieftaincies and of the behaviour necessary when in the presence of certain grades of people. These might be stools made from a single piece of wood, caryatid stools, or chairs with a European influence.
The chairs are signs of preeminence and power. The chief’s seat is sometimes a throne upon a raised platform. Finely decorated and sculpted thrones from the court are true works of art and their function is to enforce the authority of the person sitting on them. In theory, each village chief owns a chair or stool. The chair or stool may include figurative elements representing the relationship between the world of the living and the world of the ancestors. Zoomorphic stools are widespread in the east of Angola and the south west of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and may represent a monkey, a bird, an elephant, buffalo…
Other objects exist that are more the domain of luxurious personal items, such as snuffboxes, headrest, combs, whistles…
Tshokwe (Chokwe) Sculptors
Wooden masks and other objet d’art are made by professional sculptors. Working side by side with the blacksmith (who solely works metal), there is a specialist who sculpts wood and learns his craft in the hands of a master. Sometimes, it is the sculptor’s son that takes over from his father. Otherwise it might be a man who feels his vocation and goes to train with the master. There were two types of sculptor:
- One that made figures for family altars, objects for hunting, love, fertility and magic.
- Artists appointed by large chieftaincies that worked uniquely for the courts. A certain amount of rivalry existed between these artists. They were famous for their large statues of the divine ancestors, brimming with strength and dignity. They created scepters, thrones decorated with figures, commemorative statues of hunting heros, statues of the chief’s mother or wife. Their style reveals a contained energy, an interiorized violence, and a decisive spirit, suggested by the oversized hands joined in front of the body. This is a shining example of the sculptor choosing symbolic proportion over a naturalistic representation. With the waning of traditional society this style of art no longer exists.
The Role of the Diviner among the Tshokwe (Chokwe)
Among the Tshokwe (Chokwe), it is the diviner’s role to determine the cause of misfortune, continued suffering and serious illnesses. The therapist then puts in place the cure established by the diviner. The diviner must explain things that have happened in the past and their present consequences, but he does not predict the future. In serious cases he may be consulted by the family and friends of the sick person. Living sometimes far from the patient, the diviner knows little about his patient or what brings him to consult the diviner. He must then ask questions in order to discover the complete context and it is in fact his visitors that unknowingly give him the necessary information by replying to his questions. The client visits the diviner to hear what they already know or feel deep down but cannot put into words. These sessions may last several hours or even several days.
During the consultation, the diviner places next to him a woven divination basket, as well as small statues that represent the protecting spirits, and a group of spear shafts. Each spearhead corresponds to a consultation given for a deceased person. The number of spearheads signifies, proportionally, the deceased’s reputation. Having identified and named the different ancestors, possessing spirits or witches that might have caused the problem, the diviner prescribes the behaviour to be taken, and the alimentary restrictions which must be respected by the client. This cure is put into practice by a traditional therapist. Problems might stem from an unhappy ancestor that has not received enough regular offerings, that is no longer evoked, that no longer sees his name used by his descending lineage, who is unhappy with the relationship between himself and his descendants…