African Studies Quarterly

Z.S. Strother. Inventing Masks: Agency and History in the Art of the Central Pende.
Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press 1998.©

Inventing Masks is a nuanced art history of masquerades among the Central Pende of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). Strother has divided the book into two interrelated parts. In the first half of the study, she concentrates on an analysis of the form and style of the masquerade's dance, costume, music, and masks. The emphasis in these sections is on the processes of invention, circulation, and interpretation of expressive forms in the contemporary setting. She devotes the second half of the book to a reconstruction of the art history of Pende masking in the precolonial and colonial eras.

Strother defines Pende masquerade as a performance, process and a set of cultural practices that are open to invention and negotiation over time and space. Her attention to agency, practice, and process situates her work within a growing body of studies of African expressive forms which have appeared over the last several decades. These studies have taken a similar performance approach. Few of these works are cited in the text, although they do appear in the bibliography. More surpisingly is the absence of the seminal theoretical works on agency, practice, and performance in her text and bibliography, although they have clearly influenced her approach and her analysis of Pende masquerades.

In the first three chapters Strother examines the Pende definition of masking where dance is seen as the critical expressive form. According to the Pende, dance sets the masquerade characterization. Strother first analyzes the basic structure and movements of masquerade dances, and then examines the ways in which music, song and masquerade costume build upon and illuminate dance characterizations. Throughout these sections she gives specific examples for the movement of expressive forms --individually or in tandem-- in time and space, underscoring the processes of invention and change. While this is neither an ethnography of dance nor of music, her insights on these expressive forms and their interrelationships in performance are compelling and suggest further avenues for research.

While attention to the masquerade performance is woven throughout the book, the focus of the core of her study remains an analysis and interpretation of the wooden masks that are created for these events. In chapter four, which is dedicated to sculptors' ateliers, she explores the dynamics of production and examines the innovations and inventions in mask forms and styles attributable to known individuals within the recent past. This section also addresses the mobility of sculptors and their entrepreneurial capacities in promoting their styles. Drawing upon specific cases studies of ateliers and artists' biographies, Strother briefly examines artistic apprenticeship and relates it to Pende notions of pedagogy.

In the following chapter, Strother's discussion of Pende theories of physiognomy is an original contribution to African art studies. She first examines how Pende define maleness and femaleness in terms of physiognomic features. These definitions are closely linked to beliefs and values that constitute a Pende moral universe. She then discusses how individual artists abstract the same to create distinctively male and female masked representations. Strother argues that the awareness of the Pende visual vocabulary is critical for understanding how artists and audience read the physical characteristics of male and female in the wooden masks.

The subsequent chapter on "Learning to Read Faces" presents an excellent analysis of different readings of the Mbangu mask. This mask is identifiable by its half black and half white face. Strother analyzes two local Pende interpretations of the mask which are different, but stand as complementary dimensions of Pende beliefs about illness and sorcery. These two interpretations demonstrate the possibilities for variations in the reading of masks within the local setting. She then examines several misreadings of these masks by Western scholars. Her analysis of masks in Chapter Six reinforces her argument that while Pende theories of physiognomy constitute a coda which organizes the reading of faces, this coda does not constitute a fixed iconography in any art historical sense, but rather a set of formal attributes that allows for individual artistic expression within and across genres of masks.

The second part of the book is an original and important contribution to the field of African art history. Few Africanist art historians have yet attempted to write an art history of an African masquerade in the precolonial period. Strother clearly articulates her methodology and addresses the limitations of any precolonial reconstruction. Although many of her conclusions must remain tentative, she does develop a persuasive narrative by comparing sets of related masquerades over time and space and by drawing upon common principles which Pende themselves use to discuss the age of their masquerade.

The colonial era reconstruction is supported by published ethnographies, detailed field testimonies, and other documentary evidence. Strother discusses several of the major political and economic events of the colonial era in terms of what changes they wrought in Pende society. She then discusses how these changes affected the masquerades, themselves. In the last section of the book she moves beyond the colonial era to address the role of the audience in the processes of invention and reinvention of masquerade today. As part of this discussion, she locates the dialogue between sculptors, performers, and audience within the larger field of Congolese popular culture. While this section is not fully developed, it does suggest areas for further investigation.

This is an ambitious work. It is innovative in its approach and in its narrative style which includes extended testimonies from Pende, themselves. It is also rich in ethnographic detail and the sections on a precolonial and colonial art history of masquerades are valuable and should provoke more discussions of the nature of evidence, memory and of art historical methodology. While the book clearly holds a special interest for art historians, many of her insights will appeal to a broader interdisciplinary audience interested in the study of material and expressive culture.

Mary Jo Arnoldi, Curator
Department of Anthropology
Smithsonian Institution