Liminality

By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Mask representing a Lunda female chief, Chokwe peoples, Chitofu Village, Zambia, 1991. Photo by Manuel Jordán.

As an educational process, initiation occurs most explicitly during the liminal period. “Liminal” in English comes to us from a Latin word meaning “threshold.” Just like when one stops in a doorway and is no longer in the hall but not yet in the room, during the liminal period of ritual one stands at the threshold between one social status and another. As the late Victor Turner wrote, the betwixt-and-between nature of liminality releases initiands from ordinary rules and expectations. Indeed, ritual is specifically created so that initiands can reflect upon what has been and will (or at least could) be, thus “making them vividly and rapidly aware of ... their culture” (Turner 1970: 105). Creative hypotheses result, and visual and performative arts often serve as vehicles for such crucial learning. Sometimes mask iconography refers directly to liminality, as does this Chokwe initiation mask of the culture heroine, Lweji, with its two faces looking to the past and the future.