TITLE: Chokwe Bird Mask
TYPE: crest mask
DESCRIPTION: Bird Initiation Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Initiation; Spirit Invocation
AGE: ca. 1980s-1990s

The populous Chokwe people of Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zambia are known as some of the most skilled wood carvers in Africa. They resisted colonization far longer than most peoples of the region, despite repeated incursions by the Portuguese and other Europeans.

The Chokwe use masks in many contexts. Animal masks like this one are used most often in initiation rituals to recount tribal stories and proverbs to teach young adults social mores and customs. They are also used in preparation for hunting in order to invoke the spirit of the sharp-eyed bird. The articulated jaw adds realism to the performance by allowing the masquerader to mimic the bird’s beak movements.


TITLE: Yaka Ndeemba Mask
TYPE: helmet mask
COUNTRY: Congo, Dem. Rep. of
DESCRIPTION: Ndeemba N’khanda mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Makunda (N’khanda)
FUNCTION: Adult Initiation
AGE: ca. 1980s
OTHER MATERIALS: split cane; vegetable fiber; raffia; pigment

The Yaka people of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have a male initiation society known as Makunda or N’khanda, which is charged with circumcising, hazing, and teaching boys to become a man (mainly, education in hunting and sex).  During the circumcision dance performances (kinkanda), the initiates wear special masks while their teachers alone are permitted to wear the ritual masks of the Makunda. After initiation, the boys are led out of seclusion and back into the community.  Before festivities can begin, the head teacher (kahyuudi or kayudi) commissions a carver (nkalaweeni or mvumbwa) to create a series of masks. Many types of masks are worn or danced in succession during the final initiation feast:

  • Kambaandzya (a raffia cloth domed helmet mask with a brim bisecting it; the mask is covered in black resin and painted with geometric designs in red, white, blue, and yellow)
  • Tsekedi (a leather or raffia cloth helmet mask with a white, human face and a series of horizontal discs on an inverted cone topping the helmet)
  • Mweelu (a helmet made of braided raffia fiber with large numbers of feathers; birdlike eyes in wood, gourd or bamboo; and a hornbill beak for a mouth)
  • Ndeemba (an abstract human face with bulging eyes carved of wood; many phallic rods come out of the helmet in all directions, including the inverted cone on the very top)
  • Kholuka (a polychrome human face with bulging eyes, and an open mouth showing the teeth, carved of wood; horizontal discs on an inverted cone come from the top, with bird feathers, and polychrome figures of humans or animals)

The kholuka, also known as a mbaala, is worn either by the leader of the initiation or the senior initiate.  It is the last danced, and it is danced alone to signal the end of the initiation ceremony. Unlike the other masked dances, which are entertaining to the audience, the kholuka creates a sense of unease due to the overtly sexual behavior of the dancer.

For more on Yaka masquerade, see Arthur P. Bourgeois, Art of the Yaka and Suku (1984).