Saints, Spirits, and Strangers: Masks from Malawi


Axis Gallery, New York
November 2 – December 1, 2001

The Maravi peoples, who comprise three main mask-producing groups (Chewa, Nyanja, and Manganja), have been settled in the region of Malawi since at least 1550. Masks were made by the mens’ secret society, called Nyau, to which all men belonged. Nyau is thought to have existed for several centuries among the Chewa, the senior branch of the Maravi, before spreading to the southernmost Maravi, the Mang’anja, after 1875. The majority of the masks on exhibition were collected in the Chewa heartland between the 1950s and early 1980s, but made considerably earlier.

During the mid-1800s, the Maravi peoples were invaded by the warlike Ngoni, who fled Shaka’s Zulu Kingdom in South Africa, and by Muslim slave traders, who decimated and depopulated the region. In the 1860s David Livingston estimated that 19,000 slaves from Malawi were exported from Zanzibar each year, and it is estimated that a far larger number of captives died annually in the caravans bound for the coast. The missionaries who followed in Livingstone’s footsteps established a strong foothold in Malawi. Christianity was a mixed blessing, because it combated both slavery and indigenous tradition. As Christianity made inroads, particularly in the 20th century, men refused to join Nyau, and compulsory membership could no longer be enforced.

Among Maravi, men governed the spiritual realm of death and the ancestors through Nyau, while women controlled life and regeneration. The Nyau Society performed both wooden and ephemeral masks during initiations, funerals, and at certain other important events. Nyau performances allowed the worlds of the living and the dead to interact during several days of festivities. Rules governed when each mask appeared, and the movements and songs it performed. All of these rules and the making and storage of the masks were strictly secret.

Masks of old men, ancestors, and spirits represent ideal qualities, such as wisdom, and themes relating to sickness, death, and the ancestral realm. In contrast, undesirable behaviors are caricatured through representations of outsiders. These strangers include British authorities, Muslim slavers and traders, white women (called Dona), Ngoni invaders, and characters who epitomize foreign values, such as Elvis Presley and Charlie Chaplin, who represents American Peace Corps volunteers. Such Christian characters as Simoni (Simon), Maliya (Maria or Virgin Mary), and the Devil contrast Christian values with the ancestral spirituality of Nyau. The nature of spirit is, however, ambiguous, and what is negative in one context can be positive in another. All of these masks are included in this exhibition.

Few Nyau masks exist in collections. Several factors account for their rarity. Nyau was so secret that it escaped the attention of early explorers and collectors. Later, the British colonial authorities banned Nyau because they mistakenly believed it underpinned chiefly power. The treasured wooden masks were rarely soldŃthey were costly to commission and earned their owners high rental fees. Their colored surfaces, periodically anointed with paint, often over several generations, and their numerous additions also unsettle Western stereotypes about African art.

Consequently, little has been written about Nyau masks, although they reveal fascinating similarities with the masks of the Makonde and Chokwe peoples, and with the Luba, from whom the Chewa trace their origins.