Chewa rock art, Malawi and Zambia

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The ancestors of the Chewa and Nyanja peoples of central Africa were amongst the most prolific of Africa’s Bantu-speaking farmer rock artists. More than four hundred Chewa rock art sites have so far been found spread across central Malawi, eastern Zambia and neighbouring areas of Mozambique. Nearly seventy percent of the known sites fall within the Dedza-Chongoni hills of Malawi and it seems that this was a core area for Chewa art.

Chewa rock art divides into two separate art traditions: the art of nyau and the art of chinamwali. As is typical of rock art traditions made by Bantu-speaking peoples, the primary colour used is white and this is applied thickly by daubing. In rare instances where the art is especially well preserved, black finger-painted decoration may be seen executed over the primary white design. The white pigment is a form of powdered clay, which can be dug out of most riverbeds in this area. The same pigment is used in traditional house decoration today. The black pigment is powdered charcoal. Both pigments seem to have been mixed using only water as neither is tightly bonded to the rock surfaces. Rock engravings (also known as petroglyphs) are unknown in these traditions.

The art of nyau is a tradition belonging to Chewa men. Nyau rock art is comparatively rare and fresh-looking when compared with chinamwali rock art. Only a few dozen sites are known. It depicts a range of masked men and, in particular, larger animal basketwork figures. These are readily recognisable as the elaborate masked characters that still perform in the ceremonies of the nyau closed association (see entry for nyau closed association). While the subject matter of the art is known, the art is not made today and it is no longer remembered why the art was made.

It has been argued that the nyau art tradition belonged to the specific historical context of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time when nyau was forced to become an underground movement because of its suppression by Ngoni invaders, missions and the colonial government. According to this explanation, the art served as a mnemonic device, helping to teach young initiates about the construction and meaning of large nyau structures that could not be made in this troubled time. The art went out of use when the suppression of nyau ended and initiates could once again learn by making and using the real structures. The need for the rock art was thus removed.

The art of chinamwali is far more numerous and, judging by the many layers of superpositions – more than a dozen at some sites – it is a tradition that has a far greater antiquity than nyau art. It seems likely that this tradition of art has been passed down from the time of the earliest ancestors of the Chewa in this region, more than one thousand years ago. This, therefore, is traditional Chewa rock art. This art has been linked to Chewa women and to the girl’s coming-of-age ceremony: chinamwali. The painted symbolism is thought to revolve around concepts relating to water and fertility. It contains many instructive messages that teach and remind those attending chinamwali how to behave and conduct themselves.

Similar designs to those in the rock art are modelled in clay and used in chinamwali and similar ceremonies in a number of places within central Africa. These designs each have a name, a dance and an instructive song and the image helps the young girl’s to remember the many and complex teaching of the ceremony.

The subject matter of these designs and their form suggest close parallels with Chewa rock art. It seems likely that the images in the rock art were also linked to song and to dance. Today chinamwali rock art is not longer made today, but some of the shelters with this art are still used for chinamwali ceremonies. There are indications that the secret meanings of many of the designs are still understood, but there has been no published confirmation of this to date.

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