Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Makishi: Mask Characters of Zambia. Manuel Jordán. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2006. 84 pp.
From the art historical perspective of traditional African art, the distinction between the systems of thought and the supporting visual traditions among the continent’s ethnic groups, especially living within the same geographical region, is more of artificiality than reality. Yet that given African ethnic group may have certain peculiar traits that set it apart from its immediate neighbor is not contested. For instance, prior to, and even after, the partition of Africa by European powers following the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, there have always been traces of intercultural exchanges, borrowings, and assimilations. As this relates to the ethnic groups or subgroups in central Africa, Manuel Jordán’s Makishi: Mask Characters of Zambia underscores this “unity in diversity” nature of traditional African arts.
Echoed in the foreword by Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts (p. 6), Jordán states clearly the two-fold aim of the book. First, it sets to complement and update existing scholarship by offering more insight into the form, function, and context of makishi visual traditions prevalent among the ethnic groups in the ‘three corners’ region of northwestern Zambia, northeastern Angola, and southwestern Democratic Republic of the Congo. It also intends “to develop an alternative form of categorization highlighting a variety of individual mask characters by their defined physical attributes and those that become evident in performance” (p. 16).
Targeting very large, diverse audiences from across disciplines, Jordán divides the study into three sections, all strongly attesting to, and confirming his in-depth knowledge of the Zambian makishi masquerades traditions. Jordán’s rich primary information sources were mainly Zambian natives and practitioners of makishi, which included the mask makers and performers and the mukanda camp leaders. Also of great inestimable value was the author’s persistent and unending study of visual traditions of the peoples in northwestern Zambia and surrounding territories for “nearly twenty years” as noted in the preface by Allen F. Roberts (p. 8). The reader is particularly overwhelmed by Jordán’s role as not just an observer in the makishi contexts, as is often the case among scholars researching the visual traditions outside of their own cultural boundaries, but also as someone with insider knowledge, based on his life-long unrivalled mutual relationship with the local narratives.
The first section of the book spells out the concepts and general contexts of makishi, explicating the masquerade characters, in which the author proposed four for the Zambian makishi—sociable, ambiguous, aggressive, and royal. Jordán’s makishi typological model is based on the masks’ physical (formal) attributes combined with their behavioral, performative contexts (p. 23). Jordán deserves commendation for offering this clear, straightforward, and all-encompassing makishi character categorization, especially when compared to the two previous less clear-cut and somehow loose classifications by art historian Marie-Louise Bastin (1982) and historian Patrick Wele (1993).
The book’s second section concerns essentially the makishi from the collection of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, representing the sociable, ambiguous, and aggressive characters functioning exclusively in the mukanda initiation process. The royal-type makishi character is conspicuously missing in the collection. This is an attestation that royal-type makishi, according to Jordán, is not only rarer than the mukanda initiation-related category, but is as well “considered the most sacred of all makishi” (p. 31). Jordán’s in-depth analysis of the collection, in which he frequently interjects with his own firsthand information and personal field photos concerning the makishi contexts, is praiseworthy. The section also clearly confirms and authenticates the suitability and reliability of Jordán’s quadruple categorization of the Zambian makishi characters.
However, the catalogue photos (in this second section of the book) were accompanied by only the pieces names/ titles, locations, medium/ mediums, and dimensions. There is no information on the names of artists and dates the makishi were made or collected. Such vital information, if available, could foster reader’s better appreciation of the donors’ efforts, Jay and Deborah Last, which had led to the Fowler’s acquisition of “a collection of such breadth and depth from a single region” (p. 6). More importantly, according to Jordán, owing to the secrecy nature of mukanda initiation, the primary context for makishi, Zambian tradition compels the immediate destruction of the masks after use “so that they are not discovered by women or the uninitiated” and to enable the makishi with the camp return “to the world of the ancestors” (pp. 28). Thus, information concerning the masks’ acquisition dates and/ or circumstance(s) could shed some light into two important contemporary issues concerning traditional African art. First, are the makishi, like other traditional African art, also forfeiting their sacred values and sanctions against their access to the public, in making them collectible? Are the masks, as is now the case with virtually all other traditional African sacred art, not immune to commoditization and/ or commercialization? Nonetheless, Jordan and the Fowler Museum should be well commended for providing this powerful and well-illustrated book with over eighty color pictures, making it stand-out when compared to the usual black-and-white photos of traditional African art collections/ publications.
The third and last but not least important section of the book concerns the performance contexts of makishi (in the mukanda-related and royal ceremonies), which with few exceptions, were collected by Jordán from 1991 to 1993 and in 1997 and 2004 in northwestern Zambia (p. 57). The section provides Jordán the avenue to expand on not only the makishi characters represented in the catalogue from the collection of the Fowler Museum, but also on the author’s initial makishi character categorization (social, ambiguous, aggressive, and royal). Here the information provided by Jordán underscores and corroborates his impressive familiarity with Zambian makishi. However, at least a brief juxtaposition of makishi with other visual traditions in the region, such as divination-related art, the theme for the author’s doctoral dissertation, would have better corroborated the ‘unity in diversity and/or complexity nature of traditional African art evident in the makishi traditions of the peoples in central Africa.
On the whole, makishi: Mask Characters of Zambia is a well researched and primary information laden book. It is particularly of great interest to learn how the character or demeanor of a given likishi or mukishi (singular of makishi) could be better understood by observing not only the mask’s physical and behavioral attributes, but more importantly by also comparing and contrasting such attributes with that of others. It is as well remarkable to learn that the masks’ surface decorations, especially the scarification marks, have status and maturity allusions and that “they also contain codified information that may be “read” or understood at different semantic levels” (p. 40). I strongly believe that this well established fact would put to rest, such argument as to whether or not Africans have any aboriginal forms of writing.
Olawole F. Famule University of Wisconsin, Superior