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Sachihongo Mask
19th–early 20th century
Sir Jacob Epstein, London, acquired before 1940; Carlo Monzino, Lugano, Switzerland, acquired 1959; a Private Collection, 2003–16
2016.106
Episode 8 / 2016
First Look

The mask's dynamism epitomized this moment of transformation..."

Scale and volume, interplay of planes, depth of field, strong graphic lines activated by a bit of asymmetry–these are the visual ingredients employed by a Mbunda master sculptor to breathe life into this work. "Eyes that move and vibrate . . . and a mouth that shouts" is how art historian Susan Vogel described it in one of several African art surveys that have featured it over the past fifty years. Stemming from a region in Zambia that borders both Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the mask bears traces of influence from its northern and western neighbors: the Luba, for its scale and circular shape, and the Chokwe, for its intense focus on the area of the eyes. There, multiple rows of incised lines above and below the ocular apertures define the cheeks, eyelids, eyebrows, and wrinkles of the forehead.

Known as Sachihongo, this mask represents a cultural archetype, a hero hunter revered as an ancestor. It was part of a masquerade called makishi performed in conjunction with the initiation of young boys and their entrance into adulthood. Its performative appearance constituted the climax of the rituals, as it marked the return home of the new initiates after a period of seclusion. The mask's dynamism epitomized this moment of transformation, central to Mbunda society. What remains here is the wooden core of a larger masquerade ensemble: its appearance, fully costumed in knit raffia, holding a bow and flywhisk and moving to a rapid tempo, conveyed the vitality and supernatural powers of the ancestral hunter. The circumference of the mask still bears the holes that would have held a beard of fiber and a crown of feathers.

The work's first known owner in the West was the British-American sculptor Jacob Epstein, whose African art collection is recognized as one of the most discerning artist's collection of the twentieth century. As it enters the Metropolitan, it joins several other masterpieces from the Epstein collection, including the Fang reliquary element that has come to be known as "The Great Bieri" (1979.206.229).

Yaëlle Biro
Associate Curator
Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
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