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Art Through Time: A Global View

Ceremony and Society Art: Mask (sowei)

» Mende artist, Sierra Leone

Mask (sowei)

Mask (sowei)
Artist / Origin: Mende artist, Sierra Leone
Region: Africa
Date: 19th century
Period: 1800 CE – 1900 CE
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

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.

Expert Perspective:
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.”

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.

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.

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