Mwisi wa So’o Mask, Hemba, Democratic Republic of Congo
In the northern region of the D.R.C., there are many clan groups that identify as Hemba. Amongst these groups there is a strong emphasis on the veneration of ancestors that manifests in sculptural and masquerade form. The Mwisi wa so’o is a So’o mask used to maintain balance in the community. The mask represents the lack of control and chaos in the world and when performed returns society to a state of balance. The mask is comprised of a chimpanzee that embodies the characteristics of both animal and human beings, part animalistic/chaotic and part human/controlled.
The mask is comprised of wood, monkey hair, and pelts associated with both village and forest, civilized and uncivilized. The wide, open mouth and raised eyebrows were not meant to be comical, but rather fearsome and terrifying. The mask first appears during funerals where the Mwisi wa So’o will chase spectators who run away in fear. The mask will disappear then reappear in a calm state to denote order and balance. Spectators are then free to view the performance in peace. Mwisi wa So’o is like a spirit of the dead, not yet a part in the world of the dead, and no longer part of the world of the living.
Gift of Lee Bronson. Cat. 2003 LB 14.
Blackmun-Visona, Monica, et. al. A History of Art in Africa. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson: Prentice Hall, 2008, pp. 381-384.