'Elvis' Mask for Nyau Society
Arts of Africa
On View: Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Gallery, 5th Floor
This mask for the Nyau society, a Chewa institution that governs the spiritual realm of death and the ancestors, can easily be read as a work of Pop art. In its use of kitsch imagery drawn from global popular culture, it is as Pop as a work by Jeff Koons or Andy Warhol.
Yet this mask also arises from a longer tradition. Historically, all Chewa men belonged to the secret Nyau society. The society’s masks represent the spirits of the deceased, but they may also suggest wild bush spirits or caricature personalities from the wider community. Outsiders—including Swahili slave traders, British officials, the Virgin Mary, and other iconic foreigners, such as Elvis Presley—have been considered representative of antisocial traits and undesirable values. This mask teaches proper behavior and relationships through bad examples.
Wood, paint, fiber, cloth
11 x 9 1/2 x 7 1/4 in. (27.9 x 24.1 x 18.4 cm) (show scale)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. Gordon Douglas III, Frederick E. Ossorio, and Elliot Picket, by exchange and Designated Purchase Fund
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Chewa. 'Elvis' Mask for Nyau Society, ca. 1977. Wood, paint, fiber, cloth, 11 x 9 1/2 x 7 1/4 in. (27.9 x 24.1 x 18.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. Gordon Douglas III, Frederick E. Ossorio, and Elliot Picket, by exchange and Designated Purchase Fund, 2010.41. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2010.41_PS6.jpg)
overall, 2010.41_PS6.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph, 2011
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The object is a mask decorated to look like Elvis, carved from a single piece of wood with the eyes, mouth and nostrils pierced through; on the interior, tool marks are clearly visible. Synthetic hair has been attached around the open back of the head and defines the hair and sideburns as well as the eyes and eyebrows.
A fairly thick layer of pink paint has been applied over the front of the mask and over the edges of the hair. The bottom edge and interior of the mask are not painted. Darker pink is present on selected areas of the cheeks, forehead and chin. The lips are painted red.
Various textiles and burlap are attached around the edges with natural fiber twine through a series of holes in the wood and to each other with plastic-like thread. A strip of burlap is attached around the entire edge of the mask and a strip of knitted black material is applied over the burlap along the bottom edge. A beige textile with a light brown floral pattern is attached on top of the burlap and knitted fabric around the entire bottom edge and is stitched together in various places with the plastic thread. A strip of a red, blue and white checkered material is tied around the hair at the back of the head on the interior. Sections of the hair are also tied together with the plastic thread. Pieces of teal and purple yarn are also strung to the back of the head on the exterior.
Patches of white material (paper?) with circular openings have been applied to inside behind eyes to create the whites of the eyes, which are visible from the front.
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