Active early to mid-20th century
Northern Mozambique or southern Tanzania
Makonde helmet masks, such as this intricate example, incarnate ancestral spirits who temporarily return among their living descendants on earth. These masks appear in dances that celebrate the conclusion of initiation rituals of adolescent boys and girls in the border region between Mozambique and Tanzania.
The Art Institute’s Makonde mask is distinguished from its handful of counterparts in American art museums by an engraving in Kiswahili on its cheek, which reads “Wakugonga Diteka,” a claim that memorializes the artist’s proper name: Diteka. This inscription signals that, like many other examples of traditional African art, this was not the work of an anonymous “craftsman” but rather the creation of an inventive artist who enjoyed fame in his community and was fully aware of his special talents.
Once owned by the famous French artist Arman (1928–2005) and featured in the legendary exhibition “Primitivism” in 20th-Century Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1984, the helmet mask is characterized by the realistic imitation of incised angular facial scarification marks, while its dark brown surface color suggests it represents a male character.