INTRODUCTION TO THE COLLECTION
MASKS AND MASQUERADES
COMMEMORATING THE ANCESTORS
POWER AND PRESTIGE
ART OF DAILY LIFE
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Sherbro or Mende peoples, Sierra Leone
Early 20th century
Wood, silver, and pigment
15 1/2 inches (39.4 cm) high
Collection Neuberger Museum of Art
Purchase College, State University of New York
Gift of Ruth E. Wilner (1984.01.01)
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A mask that is carved out of a section of tree trunk, most commonly of the
(cotton) tree, and then hollowed to fit over the wearer’s head and face, is referred to as a helmet mask. Unlike most carved masks around the world that are worn exclusively by men, this mask was worn by women only. It belonged to a Sowei, an official of the Sande society, a women’s association found among the Mende peoples and their neighbors throughout Sierra Leone and Western Liberia and regarded as possessing expert, specialized knowledge. Such masks are called
literally a “dancing Sowei.”
Each Mende town has a Sande society that includes all women in the community. Members oversee the education of young women and celebrate their passage to adulthood with masked performances that embody the Sande guardian spirit, who is associated with water and rivers. These masks not only appear in initiation rituals but at other important events including funerals, arbitrations and the installation of chiefs.
This mask presents two faces displayed on a diagonal plane. Looking in different directions, they allude to the embodied spirit’s all-seeing power. The mask also exemplifies Mende ideals of moral perfection and physical beauty. Among them are small slit-eyes, four rolls on the neck, (alluding symbolically to the pattern of the concentric, circular ripples made by the Sande spirit when she emerges from the water) and the oiled and polished surface that refers both to the dark, oiled skin of the Sande girls when they emerge from initiation in their newly perfect state and to the power of the water spirit.
The correlation between wet and black is manifest in the Mende language, which uses the same word for both concepts. Finally, this mask displays an elegant yet simple hairstyle, indicating perhaps an earlier fashion in Mende society but symbolically reinforcing the unity of Sande women, as they rely on their friends and relatives for braiding their hair.
Holes pierced at the bottom of the mask allow for attaching a costume made of thick layers of black raffia fibers. The dancer’s costume is completed by a black outfit that conceals the hands, feet, and other human features of the wearer.
Sande society and its masquerades have been described by visitors to Sierra Leone since the seventeenth century. The terrible violence that broke out in Mendeland during the 1990s disrupted normal Mende life, including, undoubtedly, the performance of Sande ceremonies, although we do not have any recent accounts to elucidate this situation (Phillips, 2005).
Phillips, Ruth B. “Mende Mask.” E-mail to Marie-Thérèse Brincard, Neuberger Museum of Art. (June 2, 2005).
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