Lwena Mask, Angola or Democratic Republic of the Congo
- wood, glass beads, fiber
By descent through the family
Anne and Jean-Pierre Jernander, Brussels, acquired from the above
Quay-Lombrail, Paris, Collection A. et J.-P. Jernander, June 26, 1996, lot 12, consigned by the above
Michael Oliver, New York, acquired at the above auction
Private American Collection, acquired from the above in 1997
Crédit Communal de Belgique, Brussels, Oerkunsten van Zwart Afrika/Arts Premiers d'Afrique Noire, March 5 - April 17, 1977
Elsy Leuzinger, Die Kunst von Schwarz-Afrika, Recklinghausen, 1970, p. 294, fig. U 21
Elsy Leuzinger, Die Kunst von Schwarz-Afrika, Recklinghausen, 1972, pp. 310-311, fig. U22
Elsy Leuzinger, The Art of Black Africa, Greenwich, 1972, pp. 310-311, fig. U22
Ernst Winizki, Gesichter Afrikas/Visages d'Afrique/Faces of Africa, Zurich, 1972, p. 172 and front cover
Philippe Guimiot and Lucien Van de Velde, Oerkunsten van zwart Afrika/Arts Premiers d'Afrique Noire, Brussels, 1977, p. 145, cat. 103
By Alexander Grogan
Collected in 1939 by Maurice Matton at Kinda and first published in 1969 on the cover of African Arts, the Jernander Lwena Mask is a masterpiece of Angolan art, epitomizing the finest qualities of classic Lwena aesthetics. Like the famous pwo masks of the neighboring Chokwe, Lwena pwevo masks were part of a complex masquerade practice integral to pre-colonial Lwena cosmology. Owing to the small population of the Lwena people, classic Lwena art is extremely rare. With its blend of curvilinear naturalism, cubist abstraction and beautiful exposition of the natural color and figure of the wood medium, the Jernander Mask is the finest Lwena mask in existence.
II. Cultural Origin
Living on the plains bordering the numerous tributaries branching off from the left bank of the upper Zambezi, the Lwena have a culture and history that is closely connected to that of their western neighbors, the Chokwe, and to the east, the Luba. While their name is tied to the Lwena River, their territory reaches from Angola into Congo and Zambia. Historians believe that the 16th century victory of the Lunda over the Chokwe provoked an intermingling of the two ethnicities, whereupon the Chokwe took up hunting, adopted centralized systems of authority, and incorporated aspects of Lunda tradition into their own.
The epic myth of the foundation of the Lunda Empire and the origin of the Mwata Yamvo dynasty connects Chokwe, Lunda and Luba cultural narratives through the story of the heroic Luba prince Chibinda Ilunga. Petridis (2008: 93) explains: “Chibinda Ilunga explicitly connects Chokwe culture with that of the Luba. According to mythology, he was a prince of Luba sacred blood who emigrated from the eastern Luba region while it was under the rule of his father, Kalala Ilunga. When the Luba exile arrived in the [Lunda] region he met a young princess named Lweji, the keeper of a bracelet called lukano, the ultimate symbol of authority inherited from her father. When Lweji and Chibinda Ilunga were married he received the lukano and the political power for which it stood. Chibinda Ilunga introduced the refined court manners of his Luba homeland and, more important, established a new form of centralized authority. He also taught the [Lunda] new hunting techniques. Some of Lweji’s brothers and other titleholders at the [Lunda] court were repelled by Chibinda Ilunga’s ascendancy and withdrew to the west in search of new territory. They finally established themselves in the land of the Chokwe people, called Uchokwe or T’chiboco and rich in game and fertile soil, at the sources of the Kasai and Kwango rivers. The newcomers integrated through intermarriage and transmitted some of their newly acquired customs and knowledge to their Chokwe hosts.”
And Bastin (1982b: 17) continues: “Like the Chokwe, Lwena oral history goes back to the 16th century. Chinyama, brother of the Lunda princess Lweji, left Kalanyi country after she bestowed the insignia of authority upon her husband, Chibinda Ilunga. Not wishing to submit to this outsider, Chinyama and his followers emigrated, taking over the Lwena in their native country. The conquerors retained their matrilineal system of descent […:] in contrast to the Chokwe, who were ruled by male leaders, the Lwena in particular were ruled by females, the most famous of which was Nyakatolo. This accounts for the fact that in Lwena art, there are few representations of male subjects, while femininity is celebrated in all Lwena artistic expressions.”
III. Pwevo Masks
The pwevo masquerade of the Lwena honored womanhood through the celebration of idealized female beauty. While the Chokwe were organized as patriarchal and patrilineal society, womanhood was celebrated in the pwo masquerade, in all likelihood a cultural adaptation of the Lwena pwevo. Discussions of the better studied Chokwe pwo masks can thus be applied in general terms also to Lwena pwevo masks. LaGamma (2011: 214) notes: “the appearance of the masked and costumed dancer was credited with enhancing the fertility of the assembled audience. The German ethnographer Hans Himmelheber  further observed that these masquerade ensembles were the property of individual elders, who wore them for public theatrical entertainments accompanied by drumming and song. Such spectacles were often staged in the dancer’s own and neighboring villages in order to elicit remuneration from the audience. The connection that developed between a mask and its owner/performer was an especially close (and secret) one, and the dancer frequently accorded his mask a proper name. The acquisition of such a work has been characterized as a mystical marriage and often involved payment of a symbolic bride-price to the artist. Ultimately, this cherished possession was buried with its owner.
“Although the mask element adhered to overarching conventions developed to pay tribute to idealized female beauty, its visage was typically informed by that of an individual closely studied by the sculptor. The process has been described as one in which the artist drew inspiration from the world around him through a subject with whom he was intimately familiar. Because the masks’ proportions were modeled on those of a particular face, Himmelheber has referred to such works as ‘half-portraits.’ Bastin corroborates that in the execution of such works, when a sculptor was observant of historical practice, he would seek to augment the realism and thus the efficacy of the work by selecting as his model a woman renowned for her beauty and exemplary character traits. She further notes that the physiognomy of a muse most likely to be cited formally was in the depiction of features such as the nose, mouth, ears, coiffure, and cicatrizations on the forehead and cheeks, which were considered signs of aesthetic perfection in a Chokwe woman. Obtaining such nuanced information required liberal access to and familiarity with the subject. Consequently, if an artist had previously reproduced the features of his own wife, betrothed, or girlfriend, he might select a married woman and request that her husband provide the necessary details. Yet just as the human identity of the masquerade dancer was withheld from women, the appropriation of a particular female model was also undertaken through subterfuge. Therefore, certain information about the visage in question, such as its length, the distance between the eyes, and the relationship of the nose to the mouth, was ascertained by caressing the face with a stealth tape measure in the innocuous form of a vine. According to Himmelheber, once the template for a mask’s proportions was established, the artist worked in isolation.”
IV. Lwena aesthetics
On the occasion of her influential 1969 essay on Lwena art and aesthetics, published in African Arts with the Jernander Lwena Mask on the cover, the preeminent expert on Angolan art Marie-Louise Bastin (1969: 47-49) noted: “Next to Chokwe art, which displays a more rigorous plasticity, Lwena art is distinguished by the gentleness of its lines and forms. Thus, the definition given by Frans M. Olbrechts of Lunda sculpture – in our opinion a non-existent art or totally mediocre and imitative of the Aruund of Katanga – could be applied to that of Lwena: ‘the sculptor has a predilection for round and full forms … he combines this naturalistic penchant with an elegance which surpasses even the most refined creations of [Luba] artists.’”
Bastin (ibid.: 53, 77) also discusses the typical coloration and surface appearance of Lwena masks exemplified by the Jernander Mask: “The delicate refinement of Lwena art is the product of this people’s expert feeling for their material. Criteria for the selection of the wood include not only the grain but the color. One of the most striking Lwena masks is made from a light-colored wood with a dark grain which outlines the female features of the mask. These Zambezi peoples admire a light-colored skin very much. In sharp contrast, the Chokwe give their works a dark brown or black color or cover them with a mixture of red earth and oil. Lwena masks retain the natural beauty of the wood; this is the unique quality of the art of this peaceful people – an art characterized by its refined, gently rounded forms.”
V. The Jernander Mask
The historical relationships of the Lwena people to their neighbors the Chokwe and the Luba are expressed in sculptural form in the Jernander Mask, an icon of the Lwena style. The overall design follows the orderly cubist scheme of the famous Chokwe pwo masks (see fig. 1). Melded into this aesthetic is a softness of form and feminine sensitivity which recalls the greatest creations of Luba sculptors, and their inclination towards smooth, rounded natural shapes.
In comparison to other old Luena masks (see for example fig. 2) the Jernander Luena Mask is further distinguished by its exceptionally refined, delicate features. Deeply-incised geometric symbols, signs of ideal feminine beauty, adorn the face, which is bracketed on either side by C-shaped ears in high relief. In characteristic Luena style, the sculptor has chosen to showcase the natural color and grain of the wood, which has gained a rich patina from a long period of handling and use in the pwevo masquerade.