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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

Additional Resources

Harding, Frances, ed. The Performance Arts in Africa: A Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

Lamp, Fred. “Cosmos, Cosmetics, and the Spirit of Bondo.” African Arts 18.3 (May 1985): 28–43, 98–99.

“MASK, sowei.” In Collections Online. Fowler Museum at UCLA Web site. http://collections.fowler.ucla.edu.

Phillips, Ruth B. Representing Woman: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone. Los Angeles: University of California Los Angeles, 1995.

Visona, Monica, et al. A History of Art in Africa. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Mask (sowei)

» Mende artist, Sierra Leone

Among the Mende people in Sierra Leone, the Sande (or Bondo) society has traditionally overseen the transition of girls from childhood into adulthood.

Girls would be taken into the forest and taught the secret knowledge of women. When they had completed this initiation, they were returned to the community and presented in a ritual masquerade as mature women ready for marriage.

This helmet-like mask, along with a full-body costume made from the raffia palm, would be worn during both secret initiation rituals and the final presentation ceremony by the sowei, or Sande leader, usually a talented performer and high-ranking official in the society. In most African cultures, all masks, including those representing female characters, are danced by men. The sowei mask is unique because it is danced by a woman. The mask and its wearer offered a model of ideal behavior for new members to emulate and a demonstration of female virtues and wisdom to the larger community.

In dancing the mask, the sowei channeled the spirits of female ancestors, becoming an embodiment of mystical power, called a ngafa. The mask reflects this transformation as well as other values of the society, including wisdom and beauty. The concentric rings around the neck of the mask, for instance, represent ripples of water, alluding to the rise of the female spirit out of the watery realm that is its dwelling place. At the same time, these can be interpreted as rings of fat, signs of fertility and maturity. Likewise, the lustrous black surface of the mask simultaneously refers to the rich mud at the bottom of the river and the ideal complexion of healthy and beautiful skin. Other aspects of the mask refer to the secrecy associated with the Sande rite of passage and with woman in general. These include the downcast eyes suggestive of inner spiritual concentration and, in the case of this particular mask, a tortoise placed above the elaborate coiffure.

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