Location: South-western Congo (Zaire), Angola, Zambia, Africa.
Population: 1.16 million
Language: Wuchokwe (Bantu)
Neighboring Peoples: Luba, Lunda, Lwena, Ovimbundu, Songo.
Types of Art: The Chokwe are well known for art objects produced to celebrate and validate the royal court. These objects include ornately carved stools and chairs used as thrones. Most of the sculptures are portraits, which represent the royal lineage. Staffs, sceptres, and spears are among other implements sculpted to celebrate the court.
History: Chokwe origin can perhaps be traced to the Mbundu and Mbuti Pygmies. Between 1600 and 1850 they were under considerable influence from the Lunda states and were centrally located in Angola. In the second half of the 19th century though, considerable development of the trade routes between the Chokwe homelands and the Angolan coast led to increased trade of ivory and rubber.
Wealth acquired from this allowed the Chokwe kingdom to expand, eventually overtaking the Lunda states that had held sway over them for so long. Their success was short-lived, however. The effects of over expansion, disease, and colonialism resulted in the fragmentation of Chokwe power.
Economy: The Chokwe grow manioc, cassava, yams, and peanuts. Tobacco and hemp are also grown for snuff, and maize is grown for beer. Domesticated livestock is also kep, and includes sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens. Protein is added through hunting. There is an exclusive association of big game hunters known as Yanga, but everyone contributes to the capture of small game animals.
The farming and processing of agricultural products is done almost exclusively by women among the Chokwe. Slash and burn techniques and crop rotation are practiced to conserve the land naturally.
Political Systems: The Chokwe do not recognize a paramount leader, but instead offer allegiance to local chiefs who inherit their positions from the maternal uncle. The chiefs (mwana nganga) consult with a committee of elders and ritual specialists before making decisions. Villages are divided into manageable sections which are governed by family headmen.
All members of Chokwe society are divided into two categories: those who are descended from the founding matrilineal lines and those who are descended from former enslaved populations.
Religion: The Chokwe recognize Kalunga, the god of creation and supreme power, and a series of nature and ancestral spirits (mahamba). These spirits may belong to the individual, family, or the community, and neglecting them is sure to result in personal or collective misfortune. Evil spirits may also be activated by sorcerers (wanga) to cause illness, and this must be counteracted to regain health. In order to accomplish this individuals normally consult with a diviner (nganga), who attempts to uncover the source of the patient's problem.
The most common form of divination among the Chokwe is basket divination, which consists of the tossing of up to sixty individual objects in a basket. The configuration of the objects is then "read" by the diviner to determine the cause of illness.
Credits: Christopher D. Roy, Professor of the History of Art. The University of Iowa.