TRIBAL AFRICAN ART

LWALWA (BALWALWA, LWALU)

Inhabiting the triangle formed by the Kasai River and its tributary, the Lweta, in the southwest of the former Kasai province, 20,000 Lwalwa live in DRC, but many more are in Angola. Their social and political organization is rudimentary. Each Lwalwa village is headed by a male or female chief, whose power is held in check by a powerful society, the bangongo. The Lwalwa believe in a supreme being, but they worship only the spirits of the hunt and nature. In common with their neighbors, Lwalwa men hunt and the women farm. The sculptor enjoyed a privileged status and was paid handsomely; his profession was hereditary and often, due to his riches, he was made village chief in charge of the masked dances. Lwalwa carvers are famous for their masks.

The masks typically display a balanced composition, an enlarged angular nose, a protruding mouth and slanted eyes set under a deeply formed forehead. These sharply delineated features give Lwalwa art almost geometric appearance. The masks may be divided into four types: the nkaki, or man’s mask, with a nose sculpted into a wide triangular panel that sometimes extends up to the forehead; the shifoola, a mask with a short, hooked nose; the mvondo, the nose of which is reminiscent of the nkari’s, but smaller; and finally the mushika or kashika, which represents a woman and which has a frontal crest. The shapes of the nose are modeled after different birds. The lips are narrow but protruding and thick; the eyes have openings in horizontal slits. On the temples they have a protuberance that represents tattooing. The masks had an important function in the bangongo dance of the hunting ritual. When hunters returned empty-handed, the ancestors would be appeased by organizing a dance. The masks were also used in a secret ritual of the bangongo society, in charge of initiation and circumcision of young men. The choreography of masked dances was highly complex and had to appease the spirits of the ancestors and compel them to intervene. Masks still play a role today in secular festivities. Nowadays he mask dances are performed for payment, and their magic has largely given way to entertainment. The statuary limited to rather crude figurines whose features are copied from masks, played a definite role in the fertility ritual and also in the cult devoted to the spirits.

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