Kenneth Namalomba on the symbolism of Masks

A few weeks ago we invited Kenneth Namalomba to be part of the Nyau art project and to our surprise he had already been working on his own Nyau project concerning masks. He is the man with the 7.5 million kwacha painting and a bold and talented artist, so we had to do some probing.

Whatever a mask may represent, it hides the identity of its bearer. So the bearer becomes one with whatever it is that the masks represents, at least for as long as the mask is worn. Also keep in mind that a mask does not have to be physical but can exist abstractly through ideologies.

So why should you be interested in all this mask mambo jambo? Well, as you may have learnt from our last post, we at Zaluso are quite interested in promoting expression inspired by Malawian tradition. Also, we are all interchanging through masks aren’t we? Who we are with our close friends may not be who we are with our parents or what is portrayed through our social media platforms. Kenneths ideologies, in a way, encourage us to question our various masks, or identities, and when we do, what will we find? Just how much of your ancestral heritage shines through?

Zaluso: So, tell us about your mask paintings.

Kenneth Namalomba — I find the mask to be a symbol of equality. No matter who is behind the mask, as long as they put it on they are treated with respect. Most times I look at the oppressions in society and I think “what if everyone was wearing a mask?”, not knowing who the person is that you are meeting on the road. The robber wouldn’t know whose house he is robbing; the rapist wouldn’t know who he is raping. With that lack of knowledge everyone would act with caution and respect. The mask is also an item of African expressionism; it represents different emotions and thoughts. There are happy and crying masks and masks for every occasion. That’s how powerful and well composed the Malawian mask is.

Zaluso: What inspired you to come up with this ideology?

Kenneth: I felt like almost every artist was trying to do art the western way, even when it came to content. So I started to research Malawian art heritage to find something truly Malawian. I got inspired by how the Nyau would use masks as a form of expressionism.

Zaluso: And this is why the Nyau wear masks? To encourage equality amongst themselves? Or is this your interpretation?

Kenneth: It is more of my interpretation. However, even in their culture a nobody in that society wearing a king’s mask; Chazunda for example, is respected as a king, at that point creating that equality of power.

Zaluso: Can you tell us more about Chazunda?

Kenneth: Chazunda is the King in the Nyau mask world. One of the most fascinating stories is about his wife, Maria. Nyau is a religion and when the western missionaries came with Christianity, the Nyau people felt their religion was threatened so they thought of a way to irritate the Christian missionaries through art. So they took Maria who is the biblical mother of Jesus, the pillar of Christianity and married her to Chazunda.

Zaluso: Do you really think masks would affect the evil that people do unto each other? Such as rapists and robbers. Don’t you think the attackers wearing masks empowers them to do more evil? Isn’t it easier to do bad when you know that no one knows it’s you?

Kenneth: If I was the one in a mask and everyone was not I think that’s when you are more likely to do evil, but if everyone is wearing a mask then you also get scared of the others because you can’t know who they are and what their abilities are.

Zaluso: I’m sure different masks would carry certain amounts of authority. Someone with a small mask wouldn’t be as scary as someone with a big mask, right?

Kenneth: I don’t think it’s about the size of the mask, rather it’s about the fear in each of us which in return could help bring back consciousness.

Zaluso: Why do you feel that we have lost consciousness and how can the mask bring it back?

Kenneth: There are a lot of Albino killings, defilement cases. A sixty-year-old man raping a four-year-old girl; it is in no way imaginable for a conscious man to do that. I feel we need to get back to that point where everyone matters and I find this to be rooted in our own nature. Now the mask is not a mask of authority to me but rather it’s a mask of moral consciousness, something we all have to struggle for.

Zaluso: Now we don’t really have people walking around with masks in modern society. How do you think this idea of the mask manifests itself? Do you see the mask as a representation of our culture?

Kenneth: It’s not about the physical mask, rather it’s about our representation of the self. Everyone seems to portray themselves as good, caring and all that; that’s a mask. If we could all just become the representation, then we could say our masks fit. Almost every culture in the world has their own massk but the Nyau transcended to using them as a form of expressionism that brings in their uniqueness and makes them more distinct. They are truly our culture.

“Portrait of an African Woman” by Kenneth Namalomba
“Expectations” by Kenneth Namalomba
“Broken Love” aka “Cashgate” “The lost potential” by Kenneth Namalomba

Kenneth can be found on twitter as @KennieNamzy

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