Pwo Mask

Accession Number

Pwo Mask


Artist Nationality
Chokwe (culture or style)

Object Creation Date
circa 1890

Medium & Support
wood, tukula powder, clay, string, metal, fur, snakeskin, cloth

11 7/8 in x 11 1/4 in x 6 11/16 in (30.1 cm x 28.6 cm x 17 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern

Label copy
(African Art and the Shape of Time; August 18, 2012-February 3, 2013)
1. Mask (Mwana Pwo)
Chokwe peoples, probably late 19th century, wood, tukula powder, clay, string, metal, fur, snakeskin, cloth, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern, 2005/1.201
This Mwana Pwo mask represents an original ancestor and the embodiment of feminine ideals in Chokwe masquerades. All Mwana Pwo masks share formal similarities, such as almond-shaped eyes, an open mouth, and a delicate chin, expressing a notion of timeless beauty. Some features, however, are less fixed: the hairstyle, scarification patterns, and chingelyengelye cross motif seen here all speak to the carver’s personal and more contemporary conception of beauty. The mask provides a timeless framework to which fashions are affixed, discarded, and changed, perhaps one day to be regarded as timeless themselves.

Subject matter
This mask represents pwo, the beautiful and poised female ancestor honored in the makishi masquerades performed by the Chokwe and neighboring peoples in Zambia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Pwo is the most popular of all makishi, or masked characters that embody spirits. Though danced on other occasions, pwo is most closely associated with the boys’ mukanda initiation. Among the female persona portrayed in the makishi repertoire, the pwo (ancestor) and mwana pwo (young woman) characters represent the ideals of “fulfilled” and “potential” womanhood. Masks are completed by full-body costumes made from woven fiber or cotton and a wraparound skirt made from imported fabrics.

Physical Description
A naturalistic rendering of a human face. Eyes carved in relief are convex and almond-shaped with narrow slits and are placed in round, concave eye sockets. Nose is slender at the bridge and rounded at the tip. The horizontal mouth is partially opened. Half rounded ears display metal loops, one includes a tag with the number 039641-HAV(?). The "hair" is attached with a cloth headband, covered in snakeskin, placed high on the forehead and is made from clay and red tukula powder. The face shows striated, scarifcation patters underneath and to the sides of the eyes; the forehead shows is a chingelyengelye cross motif. The patina is smooth and redish brown in color.

Primary Object Classification
Wood and Woodcarving

Primary Object Type

Additional Object Classification(s)

Collection Area

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face masks

& Author Notes

Web Use Permitted

On display

UMMA Gallery Location ➜ FFW, 2nd floor ➜ 213 (The Robert and Lillian Montalto Bohlen Gallery)