April 2, 2008
Cantor Arts Center exhibition of makishi highlights Central Africa
Makishi are Central African mask characters, invoking and enacting ancestral spiritual intervention. After a ritual, the makishi masks are burned or buried, according to custom and belief. In short, they are returned to the world of the dead.
So Manuel Jordán Pérez, after his first two-year sojourn to Zambia ended in 1993, wondered why Chief Chitofu Sampoko presented him with a mask as a going-away present. The septuagenarian Lunda divinerthe man Jordán would later call his African tata, or fatherparsed his logic.
"You are pale and white. You come from the West. So you are from the world of the dead anyway," he explained with a grin. "Why don't you take it with you? We'll be proud. Just don't bring it back."
It was the first mask that Jordán, who was the Phyllis Wattis Curator of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts until last year, brought to the United Statesbut hardly the last of his acquisitions. He became a leading authority on the arts and cultures of Angolan and Zambian peoples. He now works as an independent scholar and is the director of Art Central Africa, a commercial African art gallery in Miami.
Last year, he was the curator of an exhibition of two-dozen makishi masks at the University of California-Los Angeles' Fowler Museum. The exhibition is now at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center through June 29. Jordán spoke to an audience at the center on March 27, the day after the exhibition opened here.
Makishi are primarily associated with mukanda, a complex and lengthy initiation process for boys. "Makishi belong to the realm of men and are created and performed solely by them. Women, uninitiated boys or men, and outsiders may interact with makishi during public ceremonies," but no one may reveal or discuss the identity of the performers, Jordán wrote in Makishi: Mask Characters of Zambia, the book that accompanies the exhibit.
The masks in the exhibition, from the late 19th and 20th centuries, are made of wood and embellished with plant fiber, cordage, beads and other materials to convey the age, gender, social rank and power of the archetypes they represent. Signs and symbols on the masks are "meant to indicate the forces of the universe," Jordán said.
During the talk, he explained a few in the range of characters: Utenu is the ancestor who is "the angry one." He is "always in a bad mood, always uttering insults
The Chikungila is an ambiguous ancestral spirit painted half red and half white. "This one you don't mess with" because of its great supernatural powers, he said.
Katoyo or Chindele masks originally mocked foreigners and outsiderssuch as, for example, the colonial powers.
Katotola is another character with supernatural powers, the one who finds what is hidden.
The Chiwigi represents a young womanperhaps a little full of herself.
"You can see your great-grandmother brought back to life through a makishi character," Jordán said. The evocation is "not just symbolic. There's play and social drama and theater, but in the end they are working with something spiritual."
The makishi recall ancestors who were influential in the community, which is "inviting them to participate in life as it evolves," Jordán said. "It's a beautiful way of looking at life."
However evocative and powerful the masks are, an exhibition can never quite convey the makishi force and power when they are included in rituals: "When you see them dancing, they become part of the human orchestra," Jordán said.
Jordán's Zambian encounter was a turning point in a longer love affair. The Puerto Rican had been focusing on contemporary art at the University of Iowa when he took a class in African art. "I absolutely fell in love with it," he said.
He said he was fascinated with its "material and meaning and context
African philosophy and way of being, its worldview and people's religious systems of thought." It was, he said, an art that was "serving a social purpose, not just art for art's sake."
Jordán switched half of his courses to anthropology, and the anthropologist Allen Roberts became his dissertation adviser. (Roberts also wrote the preface to Makishi: Mask Characters of Zambia). His dissertation in art history examined African divination techniques.
"It is a long way from Puerto Rico," Jordán admitted, but added that the cultural influence of the African diaspora in the Caribbean of his youth resonated with his newfound interests.
During that first stay in Zambia, Jordán recalled, "I felt how great it was that these traditions are strongthey are going to last forever." Time has offered a more complex and ambiguous picture, however. He said that changes have been great over the last 15 or 20 years, as masks "incorporate notions of the new."
Hence, more recent representations of makishi might include "the face of a boom box, a VCR player or radio or anything like that."
It's a good sign, a healthy sign of a "culture and society that keep renewing themselves," he said. Still, some signs of change suggest the intrusion of warfare into Central African life: He cites the example of a mask with a helicopter head"it's not a fun thing."
Jordán urged the West to encourage the cultural institutions that sponsor mask-making by working through Central African chiefs who are the mainstays of the culture. In his discussions with chiefs, he said, they tell him that he is the first outsider to approach them to talk about their culture and its preservation. He further emphasized the role everyone can play in preserving endangered art forms, wherever they are threatened.
"Whatever you can do to preserve cultural traditionanywhere in the worldgo ahead and do it," Jordán said.