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Aguilar, Laurel Birch de (1996) Inscribing the Mask: Nyau Masks, Ritual and Performance Among the Chewa of Central Malawi. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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This thesis presents an interpretation of nyau masks of the Chewa people in the central region of Malawi. Theoretically, ethnography in the thesis is informed by text interpretation as in the writings of Paul Ricoeur (1979). Texts in the thesis include the inscription of a performance, narratives of ritual events, oral discourse, and the masks themselves. Masks as texts include form, color, imagery, portraiture, construction and materials used, naming, roles, and movement; and the discourse about these. In the thesis masks are inscribed in their various roles as they are performed in funerals, initiations into the nyau society, and funeral remembrance dances. Each Chapter develops one context of masks and masking, ending with an interpretation of that context. Each interpretation builds upon the interpretations of others from one Chapter to the next, culminating in an overall interpretation of Chewa masks and masking in the final conclusion. This methodology is further focused by one recurring theme of masks; life, death and a sense of rebirth, in reference to the work of Bloch and Parry (1982) and others. Seven Chapters elaborate central ideas about the masks and the nyau masking society. These ideas include: performance and the masked event; the mask materials, mask-makers and re-creation of mask identity; the masks in relation to one another and in relation to the community; masks from historical experience; values and hierarchy of masks; ritual roles in masking; and a construction of nyau cosmology which is embodied in masks, particularly Kasivamaliro. The thesis attempts to demonstrate that Chewa masks, with all the inherent conflicting, diverse and differing local understandings presented in each context, also presents a totality; an interpretation which incorporates all of these contexts into a larger text. This wholeness is shown to be construed from the myriad details which make up masking, accounting for change and adaptation while asserting a continuity in the central theme of death and rebirth.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses > Proquest
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 12 Oct 2020 17:20

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