Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia

One million Chokwe (at least 30 different spellings -- all based upon the name these people call themselves, Kocokwe, in plural Tucokwe) have 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.

Chokwe sculptors were the most famous of the region; there were two types. The songi made jinga charms, the small mahamba figures for the family shrines, and all objects used for hunting, love, magic, and fertility. In addition to the folk art, somewhat rigid and giving no illusion of depth, there existed also the ancient refined culture of the court, expressed with conviction by professional artists the fuli. They were hired by the great chieftainries and worked exclusively for the court. They sculpted scepters, thrones with figurines, fans, tobacco boxes, pipes, flyswats, cups, and figures of chiefs or ancestors – all demonstrating a great deal of refinement. They were famous for their large statues of deified ancestors, exalting strength and dignity. The best-known representation of a chief is of Chibinda Ilunga. He was a wandering hunter, youngest son of the great Luba chief Kalala Ilunga. He got married a Lunda queen Lueji. Chibinda Ilunga was the start of the sacred dynasty of the Mwata Yamvo of the Lunda and became the model of the hunting and civilizing hero, sometimes represented seated on a throne, sometimes as standing naked or dressed as a hunter. As statues of him were sculpted after the introduction of firearms, generally the standing figure is holding a stone rifle in his left hand and a stick, called cisokolu, in his right. Chibinda Ilunga’s body is stocky, with legs bent, shoulder blades clearly drawn, the neck wide and powerful, the navel protruding. He wears an enormous hairdo, the sign of princely rank. The social organization, founded upon matrilineal lineages, has an equally large number of female statues, whether these be identified as the queen mother or a chief’s wife.

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. Chikunga is worn only by the current chief of a group. 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. Mukanda masks are also made of barkcloth over an armature of wicker. They are covered with a layer of black resin, which can be modeled before it is ornamented with pieces of colored cloth.

While in former times they probably 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 of wood. The most popular and best-known entertainment masks are chihongo, spirit of wealth, and pwo, his consort. Gaunt features, sunken cheeks, and jutting beard of an elder characterize a chihongo mask. Chihongo was formerly worn only by a chief or by one of his sons as they traveled through their realm exacting tribute in exchange for the protection that the spirit masks gave. While chihongo brings prosperity, his female counterpart, pwo, is an archetype of womanhood, an ancestral female personage who encourages fertility. As an ancestor, she is envisioned as an elderly woman. The eyes closed to narrow slits evoke those of a deceased person. The facial decoration on the surface are considered female. Recently pwo has become known as mwana pwo, a young woman. It represents young women who undergone initiation and are ready for marriage.

During the 17th century many Chokwe chiefs were introduced to chairs imported by Portuguese officials and adopted the foreign style for their thrones. However, Chokwe style and decoration were saved. The figures on the back, stretchers, and legs were typical Chokwe carving.          

The Chokwe have influenced the art of many neighboring peoples, including the Lunda, Mbunda, Luvale, and Mbangani.

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