Mende / Bassa Female Helmet Mask, Sierra Leone / Liberia #891

$ 900.00 $ 1,800.00
Shipping calculated at checkout.
  • Mende / Bassa Sowei Helmet Mask, Sierra Leone / Liberia #891
  • Sowei Mask used by the exclusively female Sande (Mende) or Bondo/Bundu (Temne) Societies.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, traditionally only men are permitted on Ritual Occasions to dance wooden masks. The practice of Women wearing masks seems to have been brought to several populations of Sierra Leone and Liberia, such as the Temne, Gola and Vai, by the Mende and Mande-speaking People from the Northern Savannah.
  • Sande / Bundu Society Masks, created in the 19th and 20th centuries in Sierra Leone and Liberia, were crafted by men, but danced only by Women during Initiation Masquerades. These Masks represent the Importance of Women in Mende Society, as well as the emphasis on adhering to the Ideal of a Young Mende Woman.
  • This type of Helmet Mask is worn exclusively by Women belonging to Female-led Sande (Mende) or Bondo / Bundu (Temne) Societies. 'Bundu' – or, more correctly, 'Bondo' – is the Temne name for the Women's Society known as Sande in Mende-speaking areas of Sierra Leone.
  • The Sande / Bundu Society initiates girls into adulthood by Rituals said by its supporters to confer fertility, to instill notions of morality and proper sexual comportment, and to maintain an interest in the well-being of its Members throughout their lives.
  • The Mask is divided into four parts: the ringed neck, the face, the hair, and the head ornamentation. "The neck rings are a sign of beauty, wealth, and status in the adult. They reflect waves on the surface of the water as the Goddess Sowo rises up (Boone 13). It signifies Divinity, and is almost an Icon by itself, like the halo in a Christian painting (Boone). It is also possible that the rings represent the chrysalis of the moth or butterfly, since the neighboring people, the Temne, associates the Sowei Spirit with the chrysalis of the butterfly. The imitation ensures their metamorphosis from girls to mature women." - Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art. Sylvia Ardyn Boone. Yale University Press, 1986
  • Sowei Masks are worn by Senior Members of the All-Female Society during these Rite-of-Passage Ceremonies that Signify a Girl's Transition to Adulthood. The Mask presents an Ideal of Feminine Beauty admired by the Mende and related Ethnic Groups.
  • SOWO is the Goddess / Spirit connecting Women to Water Spirits, and attests to the Creative Power of Both. The Power of the Mask is in the Spirit, Sowo (also known as Nowo or Sowei), a Water Goddess. The Mask Wearer gives up her own identity to evoke the Spirit, Sowo, by putting the Mask on her head to make the Spirit come to life. The Sowo spirit is present to escort the girls into initiation and provide guidance while they are in training. This spirit stays with them through the emergence into adulthood and marriage. The female masker appears at the time of female circumcision, which is the greatest single act of female initiation. It is said the Mask mesmerizes the young girls and relieves the pain of the operation. The Mask represents all that a woman should be: wise, elegant, and serene.
  • Sowei (plural Soweis) are understood as the Guardian Spirits of a Sande / Bundu Society, who is represented by this type of special Helmet-like Mask. sacred mask of the
  • The Mask is traditionally worn by a high-ranking member of the society, the dancing Sowei, known as the 'Ndoli Jowei' among the Mende or 'a-Nowo' among the Temne. The wearer (who has to be a powerful dancer and an Official of the Village Sande Society) puts on a thick cotton costume, usually trousers and shirt covered with heavy fibre strands dyed black. The Helmet Mask worn on top of the head of the Sowei Dancer, is accompanied by raffia, attached through holes drilled around the bottom, as well as the woven cloth. The Mask serves as the Visual Connection to the Spiritual World, and the Sande/ Bundu Society's Officials' faces and bodies are not visible, and thus conceal any Human Attributes.
  • Her dances may last for over two hours.
  • Sowei Helmet Masks typically have a polished black finish, with neck rings, elaborate coiffure and dignified facial expression. The mask is thought to represent conceptions of Idealized Womanhood.
  • Because of the similarity of mask styles, and the itinerant pathways of noted carvers, it is difficult to assign some masks to a particular Ethnic Group for whom they were created.
  • With increasingly rigorous Islamisation of these Villages, however, the Sande Society is being seriously modified or even disbanded.
  • Measurements: 42cm; approx 16.6" height
  • Provenance: M. Zambou, Senegal