the largest ethnic group in South Africa, with a population of 6 million.
African Masks and statues of the Chokwe. This African Mask from the Chokwe tribe of Zaire stands 10 inches tall and is hand-carved of wood.
The Chokwe are well known for art objects produced to celebrate and validate the royal court. These objects include ornately carved stools and chairs used as thrones. Most of the sculptures are portraits, which represent the royal lineage. Staffs, scepters, and spears are among other implements sculpted to celebrate the court.
Chokwe origin can perhaps be traced to the Mbundu and Mbuti Pygmies. Between 1600 and 1850 they were under considerable influence from the Lunda states and were centrally located in Angola. In the second half of the 19th century though, considerable development of the trade routes between the Chokwe homelands and the Angolan coast led to increased trade of ivory and rubber. Wealth acquired from this allowed the Chokwe kingdom to expand, eventually overtaking the Lunda states that had held sway over them for so long. Their success was short-lived, however. The effects of overexpansion, disease, and colonialism resulted in the fragmentation of Chokwe power.
The Chokwe people founded several kingdoms, each headed by a king. Around 1860, the Chokwe people were hard hit by a drought and famine. They migrated back towards the south and settled in Angola and in Zaire, at the source of the Kwangi, Kasai and Lungwe rivers.
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. Only the current chief of a group wears Chikunga.
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 surface facial decoration is considered female. Recently pwo has become known as mwana pwo, a young woman. It represents young women who had undergone initiation and are ready for marriage.