CM: This Njorowe of the Makonde tribe, Southeastern Tanzania and Northern Mozambique, is a body plate with breasts, protruding navel and a bulging belly, often referred to as 'Belly Mask', and represents a young pregnant woman's bust. Such a startling mask depicts the female anatomy from the neck to the pubis. These highly sought-after pieces come from almost nowhere else but the Makonde, though there are a few amazing examples from the Fon of Benin, the difference being that the Fon actually portray the female genitalia. The Njorowe is carved from a solid tree trunk, the hollow fitting to the front of the body. A series of holes drilled at the rim of the mask would have received strings with which to attach the mask onto the body. It is also worth remarking on the material's perishable nature, which is part of the artist's intention. Unlike the Western tradition, the African artist did not make things to last. Things are meant to be used and to disintegrate in nature. This object is one of few pieces that herewith receives the attention of a Western institution aiming to preserve it for posterity.
Makonde societies are traditionally matrilineal. This means that husbands have to move to the villages of their wives and the children of couples belong to their mothers. Women play an important role in mythology as well as in religion and art, and are the dominant theme of the Njorowe. According to Makonde legend, which is orally transmitted, the first man wandered around outside the bush, and sculpted a female figure out of wood, and then fell asleep. When he awoke, the statue had become a real woman who gave birth to many children and, after her death became the venerated ancestress of the Makonde. The Njorowe is used in an ancestress cult and celebrates the return of young men to the village after they have been initiated into manhood. The men who wear them cover their faces with a mask of a feminine face. The Njorowe forms part of the costume of Ndimu, a male dancer whose face is concealed behind a female mask. In his performance Ndimu represents a pregnant woman, moves sluggishly, mimes (tranvestually and transexually) sexual intercourse with his female partner, and demonstrates (transvestually and transexually) the burdens of pregnancy and giving birth. The female performer dances with great composure, while his male companion dramatizes the pains of childbirth. An orchestra of drummers accompanies the dances.
Another theory claims that these Njorowes yielded magical powers to pregnant women or to women who wanted to achieve pregnancy. In this instance it was meant to help the fertility of the hoped-to-be-mother and the perfection of the baby. The decoration on the present Njorowe is particularly interesting. The center of the belly represents the face of the unborn baby, asleep in the womb. It is easy to discern the shut eyes and the wrinkled furrows on the forehead which are, of course, very close to the appearance of a new-born baby immediately after its birth. The belly button here seems to identify with the head's nose. The round head is surrounded by polychrome relief triangles painted in earthen colors, which make it appear to radiate with life. The sharply pointing breasts demonstrated fecundity and accentuate that part of the body which serves as the all-important source of food.