Njorowe Pregnant Belly Mask
This so-called pregnant belly mask comes from the Makonde people. Women play an important role in Makonde mythology and art. The legend is that a man carved a figure of a woman, fell asleep, and awoke to find that the statue had come to life. She gave him many children and later became a venerated ancestress. The Makonde have an ancestress cult. Female body masks, depicting a torso with breasts, pregnant belly, and sometimes scarification patterns, promoted fertility. This female body mask was part of the costume of a special ndimu masker called amwalindembo presenting a young pregnant woman. The mask was worn by a man and his performances emphasize the difficulty of childbirth.
The Makonde first came to the region in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century seeking refuge from the slave trade and they have continued to experience a great deal of cultural transformation and change over the past century, but especially during the Portuguese Colonial period from 1920 to 1974. This had a major impact on their society and moulded much of their art into what is seen today. The Makonde are an agrarian kin-based and matrilineal society. They adhere to an ancestrally based spirituality, despite pressures to convert religiously and adjust economically to the capitalist market. Their matrilineal social structure, meaning ancestry is traced through the female line, is rooted in their creation story, which speaks of the first man who sculpted a woman out of wood. This woman became real and gave birth to the first man’s many children and as a result, became the venerated ancestress of the Makonde people (Tribal African Art). Because of this, the female figure is an important protective symbol in Makonde society and in their art, as seen in the body mask.