Art and Initiation in Western Zambia

by Manuel Jordán
Musical Instrument Museum (formerly Birmingham Museum of Art)

Mbunda mask carver, Chifwe South area, Zambia, 1992. Photo by Manuel Jordán.


Chokwe and related peoples create mukishi or makishi (masks) to represent ancestral spirits that bring positive supernatural influences to communities during mukanda (the initiation of boys). Masks made from bent twigs and branches, bark cloth, and resinous materials are generally constructed within initiation camps and burned or disposed of after mukanda initiations are over. Certain ancestral characters, including a Chihongo (chief), a Pwo (beautiful woman), a Ngulu (pig), and the European or Katoyo (foreigner), are popular and often commissioned from professional artists and carved in wood. Wooden masks are kept hidden between initiation seasons and eventually restored for use in subsequent mukanda camps. This Mbunda man is carving a Pwo female mask in the privacy of his farm, away from women and uninitiated members of society, where he can work without exposing the secrets of mukanda. The carver uses an adze to create the general shape of the face before he works on the facial details with a small knife.