Tags for: Beauty Treatment: Conserving the Mwana Pwo Mask
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Beauty Treatment: Conserving the Mwana Pwo Mask

Amaris Sturm, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Conservation
March 5, 2021
Mask (mwana pwo), c. 1930s. Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo or Angola, Chokwe-style maker. 1978.27

Preparing objects for display requires collaborative efforts across the museum, from designing exhibitions, to interpreting artworks, and, in the case of this Central African mask, preparing objects for safe display. The treatment and installation of the Mwana Pwo mask, on view through Sunday, March 14 in the exhibition Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art, provides an excellent example of this collaboration.

Amaris Sturm, author and Mellon fellow in conservation, reattaches beads to the burlap cap of the Mwana Pwo mask. Photo: Philip Brutz.

Composed of carved wood, paint, and plant fibers, this beautiful Mwana Pwo mask from the Chokwe communities of southwestern Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo depicts a woman’s idealized face. Strands of reed beads hang from a burlap cap tied to the mask, which is topped with a braided headband along the hairline. Intricate netting hanging from the base of the mask would have covered the lower face and neck of the wearer. Even though the adornments represent a beautiful young Chokwe woman’s fertility and beauty, it would have been worn by a man during ceremonial akishi or makishi masquerades (singular: likishi). It would often be accompanied by a Cihongo mask, a male counterpart representing strength and wealth.

Mask (mwana pwo), c. 1930s. Africa, Central Africa, Angola or Democratic Republic of Congo, Chokwe carver. Wood, reeds, plant fiber, burlap, natural fiber (possibly cotton), and colorant; overall: 21.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Katherine C. White 1978.27. Before treatment. On View in Focus Gallery 010 through Sunday, March 14, 2021.

When the mask was pulled from storage in preparation for Second Careers, there were noticeable condition issues caused the aging of its organic materials and past storage practices. The beaded strands were compressed in its storage enclosure, causing stress on the brittle fibers holding the beads together. Multiple strands had broken and become tangled within the intact ones. The beads themselves were also starting to split, with a small fragment loose in the box. Stuffed with a bundle of tissue paper, the intricate netting was pulled taut while providing little support to the now-deformed burlap cap.

Mwana Pwo mask before treatment and on its original storage tray. Photo: Joan Neubecker.

Natural fibers and plant materials, like those found throughout this mask, degrade over time. Wood and reed materials expand and shrink with changes in humidity, causing splitting. Fibers, like those holding the beads, can become brittle as they age, losing their structural integrity. These condition issues and concerns, although inherent to the object, can be softened or remedied through conservation treatment and preventive conservation approaches in display and storage.

Example of loose beads found in storage from the hair of the mask. Photo: Amaris Sturm.

Properly mounting the object was essential not only in preparation for display, but also for its conservation treatment. Mounts can be found throughout the museum, although you may not notice them. The talented mountmakers at the CMA create systems that cradle and hold objects, allowing them to be displayed safely and to better understand their meaning and use. This image shows the mask supported upright as it would have been worn. The custom mount, designed and built by CMA mountmaker Philip Brutz, ensures that the weight is borne solely by the stable, wooden face, while the beaded hair falls naturally. To help reform the burlap cap and support the heavy weight of the beads, I constructed a small pillow using archival materials that was inserted and tied to the mount. This pillow is easily removable, but can also travel with the mount, reducing the amount of handling ofthe object in installation. During this work, CMA Curator of African Art, Kristen Windmuller-Luna offered important insight on the interpretation of the object, including the angle at which the mask should be displayed, the desired shape of the burlap cap, and the placement of the beaded strands. Constant conversation between curators and conservators about the goals of conservation treatment are an essential part of the process.

In this internal view of the mask, a mount is attached to the wooden mask. A rod is inserted into the mount, which will ultimately hold the mask upright and at the correct angle. Photo: Philip Brutz.

Once the object was mounted, I began structural treatment of the beading. Reattaching the broken strands was challenging; the original cords were still intact, making it difficult to insert a new, stronger material without undue stress on the beads. Standard steel sewing needles are too short, stiff, and sharp to safely thread through the delicate beads without completely disassembling the strand and removing original material. Philip developed the perfect solution: cutting a custom length of fishing line and flattening one end with heat. This acted as a long flexible needle to carefully pull a thin polyester thread through the beads one at a time. This new supplemental thread provides added support to the beads, as well as a strong material to tie the loose strands in place on the stable burlap.

Loose beads are restrung using a fishing line needle and polyester thread, retaining the original cord. Photo: Philip Brutz.

As with all treatments, conservation ethics play an important role in the materials and techniques we use. We take care to choose materials that are gentle and safe to use on the object, but also achieve our goals of long-term stability, and allow for future conservators to revise the treatment without causing further alteration to the original material. These considerations are essential to the care and preservation of museum collections.

Mwana Pwo mask after treatment and mounting. Photo: Joan Neubecker.

The conservation and preservation of this and other objects in Second Careers extends to how they are displayed in the galleries, with the help of Environmental Conservation Technician, Laura Gaylord Resch. The temperature, relative humidity, and light levels in the galleries are carefully monitored and controlled overall, while silica gel is placed inside some of the display cases, to further control relative humidity levels. Even the materials used to make the display cases are carefully tested to ensure there are no damaging pollutants that could speed degradation.

The Mwana Pwo mask on view in Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art. Photo: Amaris Sturm.

As we approach the final week of the Second Careers: Two Tributaries in Arican Art exhibition, we are planning for the future of the object when it comes off display. Rather than going back into its original cramped box, it will be housed in a new storage enclosure created by University of Delaware undergraduate conservation student, Hannah Villines. This new, taller box easily holds the mask on its new mount and will help maintain the object’s condition while in storage, ready for the next time it goes on view in the galleries.

Don’t miss seeing this Mwana Pwo mask in person in the exhibition Second Careers: Two Tributaries in Arican Art. It is only on view through Sunday, March 14. Reserve your general admission ticket here.



Art Institute of Chicago. “Female Face Mask (Mwana Pwo),” object number 1992.731 description. Accessed February 27, 2021. https://www.artic.edu/artworks/120215/female-face-mask-mwana-pwo.

Jordán, Manuel. “Revisiting Pwo.” African Arts 33, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 16–25, 92–93.

Museum of Fine Arts Boston. “Mask (mwana pwo),” object number 1996.379 description. Accessed February 27, 2021. https://collections.mfa.org/objects/4794/mask-mwana-pwo.

Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. “Face Mask,” object number 58–15–20 description. Accessed February 27, 2021. https://www.si.edu/object/face-mask%3Anmafa_85-15-20.