Laurel Birch de Aguilar: Inscribing the Mask

Studia Instituti Anthropos 47

This book presents original research of Nyau masks among the Chewa people in the central region of Malawi. Masks are created and performed by members of the Nyau society, a secretive society extending throughout the central and southern regions of Malawi and contiguous areas of Mozambique and Zambia. Masks are performed for the community ritual events: funerals, initiations, consecration of the community ritual space for a new Chief, and funeral remembrances.

The book is framed theoretically by the work of Paul Ricoeur in interpretation and metaphor. The case is made that masks are social phenomena subject to a text-interpretation, or hermeneutical method of interpretation. Combined with this framework is the central, recurring theme found throughout each chapter and interpretation of masking: the theme of the living, the dead, and the hope of rebirth in the exegesis of the masks.

Each chapter takes a perspective on masks and masking, including performance, masks in social roles and community, historical experience, the making of masks, ritual and religious beliefs; culminating in an overall cosmological interpretation of Chewa masks and Chewa society.

The book attempts to demonstrate that Chewa masks, with all the inherent conflicts, diversities and differing local understandings, do present a totality, a wholeness of society. This wholeness is shown to be construed from the myriad details which make up masking, accounting for change and adaptation while asserting continuity in the central theme.

Dr. Laurel Birch de Aguilar studied at the School of Philosophical and Anthropological Studies of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland and did her doctoral studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Research for the book was conducted by the author over ten years, including five periods of fieldwork in Malawi.

Laurel Birch de Aguilar: Inscribing the Mask. Interpretation of Nyau Masks and Ritual Performance among the Chewa of Central Malawi. 280 pp., ill., 1996. ISBN 3-7278-1064-5. sfr 60,-