Lot 148
  • 148

Lwena Mask (pwevo), Angola

40,000 - 60,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • wood, cloth, fibers, glassbeads, seeds


Arthur and Ruth Mones, New York
Pace Primitive, New York, acquired from the above
Arnold J. and Lucille Alderman, New Haven, acquired from the above in 1984
Michael Oliver, New York, acquired from the above
Myron Kunin, Minneapolis, acquired from the above on July 1, 2007


Manuel Jordán, "Chokwe Pwo Masks: a Note on Style," Tribal Art Magazine, No. 71, Spring 2014, p. 117, fig. 20

Catalogue Note

Like the famous pwo masks of the neighboring Chokwe, Lwena pwevo dance masks were part of a complex masquerade practice which was integral to pre-colonial Lwena cosmology. Owing to the small population of the Lwena people, as compared to the surviving arts of the populous Chokwe, classic Lwena art is extremely rare. With its elegant design, delicately rendered detail, and beautiful exposition of the natural color and of the wood, the Kunin Mask is among the finest Lwena masks known.

Bastin (1982: 81) discusses the masks of the Chokwe and related peoples: “Masks play a large part in the aesthetic sphere, since, as everywhere else in Black Africa, the ritual ceremonies are of paramount importance in social life and human relations.  The masks are worn exclusively by men. Their function is to transform the man into a powerful being.  The masks, akishi (sing. mukishi), represent spirits of the same name.” LaGamma (2011: 214) continues discussing the related masks of the Chokwe pwo masquerade in terms which can be applied to the closely related Lwena: “Among the key mask genres is Pwo, 'woman,' or mwana Pwo, 'young woman.'  Although Pwo embodied the ideal of Chokwe womanhood and ancestry, it was worn by male performers.  In a photo from the 1930s or 1940s, a male dancer wears a Pwo mask ensemble of a woven body outfit, breasts, and a protruding navel. […]  the heavy beaded belt and bustle of woven ropes attached to the back draw attention to the movements of the performers buttocks, and the choreography emphasized graceful movements and elegant gestures appropriate for a female personage. According to Bastin, 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 [Himmelheber 1939].  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.”

The Kunin mask is of the earliest known style of pwevo masks, featuring a naturalistic style and hair made of fiber. It closely relates to two masks with early publication history: one mask in the Museu do Dundo, Angola (published in Bastin (1961: 386-387, ill. 264) and another published in 1956 by José Redinha (1956: 67, ill. 25). The three masks can be identified as works of one artist working in or around the Kakenge chieftainship in the Lumbala region of Angola, which is exactly where the Dundo Museum mask was collected. The eminent scholar of Chokwe and Lwena art, Manuel Jordán, dates the Dundo Museum mask as well as the Kunin mask to "19th-early 20th century," and discusses the Kunin mask as follows (Jordán 2014: 116): "From the same general region in easternmost Angola, [the Kunin mask] is practically identical to one documented by Bastin in the Dundo Museum in Angola [...] and another illustrated by José Redinha [...]. The [Kunin] mask features soft contour lines and a treatment of facial details that stretches the Upper Zambezi style to a form of expressive naturalism. [... According to Redinha] the scarification marks on the mask are of a type considered elegant among the Lwena centers of aristocratic tendencies and female rulers. There is indeed an association with certain Pwo masks and the representation of female chiefs, in some cases supporting the idea of approximation to portraiture in relation to female beauty and elegance."