Gule Wamkulu – the Great Dance of Malawi

Gule Wamkulu – the Great Dance of Malawi

gule Wamkule
Gule Wamkule mask ‘Malume’ – custodian of customs, head of the family group.

“Akuluakulu ndi m’dambo mozimila moto” (The elders are rivers where fire is extinguished’). Chewa Proverb.

Gule Wamkulu‘s fantastical masks are on show this Spring at Loving|Monro Gallery in Santa Monica. Don’t miss these seldom-seen authentic masks that represent the many different characters and morality tales in the cosmology of the Chewa tribe of Malawi.” February 17 2016 – March 31 2016

The Great Matriarchal Bantu People Of Africa

The Chewa are mainly known for their masks and their secret society known as Nyau and their masquerade dance called Gule Wamkulu meaning “The Great Dance”.

The Chewa people are matriarchal Bantu-speaking ethnic group living in Central, East and Southern Africa. They are found in Malawi (where they are predominant), Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Their language is called Chichewa, also known as Nyanja.

The Nyau (Nyao – means mask) society consists of initiated members of the Chewa and Nyanja people, constitutes the cosmology or indigenous religion of the people. Initiations are separate for men and for women, with different knowledge-systems learned and with different ritual roles in the society according to gender and seniority. The word nyau is not only used for the society itself, but also for the indigenous religious beliefs and cosmology of people who make up this society, the ritual dance performances, and the masks used for the dances.

gule wamkule mask
A late 20th century wood, paint, feathers, metal and wool mask from the Chewa people in Malawi, collected by Laurel Birch de Aguilar for the British Museum

The Gule Wamkulu masked characters play different roles in the dance, and their actions contribute to the overall function of the performance. The Gule Wamkulu performance has a number of functions including educational, psychological, social, and aesthetic. Educationally, the performance is instructive, making continuous use of the Gule Wamkulu characters as symbols of human behavior – the wastrel, the wise elder, the autocrat, the hothead, the story-teller – whose equivalents in the community are recognizable. This is achieved through songs and dances composed specifically to address current issues.

Nyau Society boys returning with a complete body mask to their secret grove after the Gule Wamkulu dance. Photo: Doug Curran

One of the core aspects of Gule Wamkulu is its ability to change and respond to changing contexts and challenges facing Chewa society, while at the same time retaining its core metaphysical teachings and social cohesion. The dance is also used to convey a message about and to comment on social and political issues. In bringing together the human, animal and spirit worlds, the dancers convey messages about topics within village life that are difficult to talk about, like HIV/AIDS or sex. Using humor and satire, the dancers also have the power to make political statements. They can do this because, while they are dancing, they are seen as spirits, not humans.

gule wamkulu malawi
The Chewa live around the beautiful Lake Malawi

The masks seen here were collected over time between the 1980’s to 90’s by a Malawian, George Malambo. He is a member of the Chewa, and he was initiated into the nyau Secret Society of the Chewa tribe. This enabled him to negotiate with elders of the nyau society for masks that were old and being replaced, or redundant, such as the colonial administrator or the Portuguese slaver.  Each mask represents a designated character and moral message, and are not arbitrary styles at all – there are believed to be up to 200 characters that are represented. Malambo is from the Nkhata Bay area in northern Malawi. Part of the collection was procured by the Witwatersrand Art Museum (WAM) in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Gule Wamkule masks Curated by gallery owner and Zimbabwean, Nicola Monro, the exhibition ‘Face the Magic’ also presents the work of 3 of Zimbabwe’s emerging young artists, for whom the Gule Wamkulu ceremonies were part of their township experience in the suburbs of Harare. 

The exhibition is open from Friday February 17 to March 31, 2018. For for information please contact:  

Loving Monro Gallery, 3125 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90405. Email or call 310-430-3612





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