Nyau Society Mask

Chewa, mid 20th Century
Wood, fabric, twine, human hair, pigment, beads
Gift of Sally and Joe Gladden in honor of Charles S. Ackerman, 2015 Woolford B. Baker Service Award recipient

A Chewa boy in Malawi must undergo a three-day initiation in order to achieve full status as an adult. This rite concludes with a masquerade called Gule Wamkulu, organized and performed by the semi-secret Nyau Society into which he has been inducted. There is evidence suggesting that the Nyau initiation ceremony, which takes place after the July harvest, dates to the 17th century and Gule Wamkulu is protected as a UNESCO masterpiece of intangible heritage. Masks, such as this one, may be commissioned from a recognized carver by a friend or relative, or by the initiate himself. Nyau masks can represent spirits of the deceased, wild and unruly spirits, animals, or even caricatures of personalities from the community. The mischievous characters interact with and perform for the audience to teach moral lessons and enforce social norms. This extraordinary example is carved from a dense, oily hardwood and sparingly decorated with red European paint. Its commanding presence is marked by a strong brow, varying textures and materials in the beard, and a rather wild full head of hair.