Manuel Jordan Perez, a former curator at the Cantor Arts Center, organized the exhibition of 24 wooden masks selected from a collection housed at the Fowler Museum at the University of California at Los Angeles. Some are embellished with plant fiber, beads and other materials to show age, gender or other traits.
Jordan is an independent scholar and Africanist who studies the art and customs of Central Africa. He is particularly interested in how the art of these regions works in concert with religious practices. Makishi — central African mask characters, which often represent ancestral spirits — are an example of such an interaction.
Jordan has written an in-depth accompanying book, which shares the name of the exhibit and explains the history of the mask tradition and how it has evolved over time to address age-old as well as contemporary societal issues.
According to Jordan's book, the word "makishi" is derived from "kishi" or "kisi," a concept found in many Bantu societies — sub-Saharan cultures sharing similar linguistic origins. The concept "denotes the manifestation or representation of a spirit, usually that of a deceased person ... or ancestor," Jordan wrote.
For the Chokwe, Lunda, Luvale, Mbunda and Luchazi, the five ethnic groups the book focuses on, the world of the dead is a window to the past. The makishi traditions offer a direct link to the people's ancestry and history.
"In these societies, the past ... is closely related to present and future success in life," Jordan explained via e-mail. "Makishi represent important members of the community, deceased, who 'come back to life' to participate in the important transitions of their descendants."
However, the masks do not always represent objects or people from the past. In fact, as Jordan has documented in his book, the makishi can be made to look like VCRs and boomboxes, and may also address concerns of modern war and disease.
Makishi often represent archetypal characters, such as the outsider European. In a film montage playing in one corner of the exhibit, a character is shown wearing khaki shorts and prancing about.
The masks on display at the Cantor Center represent both an aesthetic appeal and their function in tribal customs. They are worn by masqueraders — always men, even when the masks represent female figures — during commemorative ceremonies, such as coming-of-age rites, funerals or the confirmation of a new leader.
"In the context of initiation," Jordan said, "young boys and the community as a whole are accompanied by their predecessors — embodied as mask characters or ancestral spirits — to ensure a successful transition for the initiates into adult life, to marriage, child rearing and eventually the initiation of their own children. That's part of the cycle of life in this part of Africa, inextricably attached, honoring those who have come before you."
Makishi are worn by masqueraders, who, according to tradition, are actually transformed — becoming the character the mask is meant to embody. The identity of the men behind the masks is a closely guarded secret.
Jordan groups the masks worn in the "Three Corners" region into four categories: sociable, ambiguous, aggressive and royal. However, he said, his definitions are somewhat broad.
"There are several sub-categories and other types of masks, such as those used in adult initiations — not makishi — that could broaden the spectrum," Jordan said. "As I note in the book, there are well over 100 or 200 characters, so these ideas are always being redefined. The categories presented were those 'in place' while I conducted fieldwork in northwestern Zambia from 1991 to 1993 and on other research trips I have done since."
Jordan said that while many of the masks are burned soon after they are used in ceremonies, others are saved for future use. Some are even sold or rented to neighbors for use in their makishi masquerades. Still others are taken by outsiders for a price or as a gift, as was the case with a mask Jordan received.
"It is perfectly normal that an outsider may come to the area and ask to buy a mask," he said. "They will only sell it if it is not needed. ... After two years of work in Zambia and participation in two initiations, I was offered a mask as a gift by the village headman. This was 'so I would remember' and because they knew how much I like these objects."
Jordan said the chief who gave him the mask told him, somewhat in jest, that it was going to the land of the dead. He meant that since the mask was going to the West, where it would be seen only as an object, it would no longer have a spiritual presence inside it.
At the Cantor exhibit, the masks on display have all been effectively retired, Jordan said, adding that visitors should not be concerned about the exhibit being disrespectful.
"In a way, even devoid of their spirit, makishi in such an exhibition still fulfill the role of educating — now a Western audience — about the rich traditions of Central African people, their religious beliefs, and morals," Jordan said. "I think these create an environment of exchange that is very productive and certainly in tune with the original function of the objects. "
What: "Makishi: Mask Characters of Zambia," an exhibit of 24 wooden masks
Where: Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University
When: Through June 29. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursdays until 8.
Info: Go to http://museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177. The exhibit's accompanying book is for sale in the museum bookstore for $20.
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