Printer Friendly Version

Color My World

Beyond light and dark
Tabwa (Zambia)<br><i><b>Mask</i></b>, late 19th–early 20th century<br>Glass beads, feathers, raffia, cloth, and skin
zoom Tabwa (Zambia)
Mask, late 19th–early 20th century
Glass beads, feathers, raffia, cloth, and skin


Color fades from the world when the sun goes down. In the moonlight, away from city lights, everything seems to be a shade of gray. Several nights each month are almost black, before the sliver of the new moon appears.

For the Tabwa people of Congo and Zambia, in Africa, the dark time between moons is fearsome. Lions, snakes, and other creatures are more dangerous when you cannot see them. Without the light of the moon, the Tabwa feel, sinister forces are free to roam. The rising of the new moon, called balamwezi in Tabwa, brings more than light. Balamwezi stands for courage, hope, and understanding.

The pattern of triangles on the forehead of this mask also is called balamwezi. Such interlocking triangles appear throughout Tabwa life—woven into baskets, carved on tools, braided into hair, or etched in the skin. The alternating dark and light triangles on the mask recall the phases of the moon. Wherever the balamwezi pattern appears, it reminds Tabwa people of the new moon’s message of hope.

Someone with power to see the invisible would have worn this mask. The feathers crowning the mask symbolize such power. They are from the jungle fowl, a bird known for its uncanny ability to crow just before dawn. The colorful beads on this mask are rare in Tabwa art. But perhaps the brightly colored face suggests another power—the clear, colorful vision of the full light of day.

November 2004