Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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4 / Ceremony and Society

Mask (sowei)
Mask (sowei)
Artist / Origin Mende artist, Sierra Leone
Region: Africa
Date 19th century
Material Wood, pigment, plant fiber
Medium: Other
Dimensions H: 26 ¾ in. (68 cm.), W: 9 ½ (24 cm.), D: 10 ½ in. (27 cm.)
Location Fowler Museum, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA
Credit Courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA

expert perspective

Mary Nooter RobertsProfessor of Culture and Performance, University of California, Los Angeles

Mask (sowei)

» Mende artist, Sierra Leone

expert perspective

Mary Nooter Roberts Mary Nooter Roberts Professor of Culture and Performance, University of California, Los Angeles

Among Mende peoples of Sierra Leone in West Africa, there’s an entire association dedicated to women’s initiation rights, specifically the initiation rights of very young women—girls undergoing puberty, who are secluded from society for a period of time, during which they are instructed by elder women who are members of an association called Sande whose role is specifically to guard and transmit the knowledge pertaining to women’s worlds. At various points during this initiation right, masquerades were staged that would announce the completion of certain stages of learning. And what is so remarkable about Mende masks is that they are one of the very rare examples where masks are commissioned and danced, performed, by women. This is a very rare occurrence in Africa, where masks are usually performed by men.

We in the West call them masks, but when you see the mask enter the arena and perform this very remarkable dance that can have both very calm and measured movements and also very frenetic and lively acrobatic movements as well, this is a recognition that the spirit has come to visit and that the spirit is present. But the mask is all about announcing the sort of acquisition of knowledge, and the mask itself can embody that knowledge through its iconography.

In the Mende masks, there’s a lot of emphasis on a beautiful broad forehead and then a very compressed face with downcast eyes—eyes that reflect composure and that reflect the kinds of learning and instruction that the woman has acquired through the course of initiation rights. And you’ll notice often that there are rings around the neck. A woman with lines around her neck is considered to be extremely beautiful. That is very true among Mende, but there’s also the suggestion that because the spirits reside within the deep dark pools and lakes, that when a spirit emerges and pokes her head through the water, it creates concentric circles on the surface of the water. And these rings are a reflection of the emergence of the spirit.” 

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