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Mask (So’o or Soko Mutu)

The so’o appears at funerals, where it is interpreted as an allegorical figure of death. For the Hemba, the mask, its accouterments, and the masquerader’s movements and gestures combine elements— animal and human, the bush and the village—to create a creature that parallels their ideas about the afterlife, where, they believe, distinct worldly categorizations are mixed and confused. The so’o also has other associations: each mask is given the name of a particular ancestor, with the belief that the mask embodies that person’s essence; the mask also has connections with fertility of both people and crops; and some are said to protect households.

The mask’s name refers to a “chimpanzee-human, ” but Hemba peoples do not admire the chimpanzee; instead, they regard it as an animal that can be aggressive and predatory toward people. While Westerners are probably inclined to see the mask’s mouth as a wide grin, the Hemba see it as a grimacing open mouth that in no way suggests friendliness or good humor.

Hemba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Mask (So’o or Soko Mutu)
First half of the 20th century
Wood
H. 6 ¾ in. (17.1 cm)
Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection, 87.24.4