Mende Bundu Helmet Mask
The Sowei mask is one of the most important and recognizable symbols in the ceremonies of the Mende people. There are two separate societies within the Mende: the Poro (the men’s society) and the Sande (the women’s society).
Origin: Sierra Leone
Approx Age: 2nd half of the 20th century
Dimensions cm: 39 x 23
Ref. Number: 1861
Mende Sowei helmet mask from the Sande society, Carved wooden helmet mask in the form of the human face, stained black., facial scarifications, angled eyes and small ears and nose, and an elaborate coiffure.
Provenance: Ex-Sam Handbury-Madin, UK
The Sowei mask is one of the most important and recognizable symbols in the ceremonies of the Mende people. The Mende are one of the largest groups in Sierra Leone. There are two separate societies within the Mende: the Poro (the men’s society) and the Sande (the women’s society). Both of these societies prepare and train young Mende people to be initiated into adulthood, but the Sande specifically teaches girls the necessary skills to prepare them for becoming mothers and fulfilling the expectations of women within society. One of the most important events in the society is the girls’ coming-of-age ceremony, which takes place when the girls have completed their training and have successfully entered womanhood. This means that the girls are eligible for marriage and motherhood. According to Boone, this ceremony signifies the liminal change in which the Mende girls “give up their old life and begin a new one.”
One of the most prominent aspects of the ceremony is traditional song and dance. While dancing in the event, officials of the Sande wear sowei masks, which represent the spirit of the society. The sowei mask is a “helmet mask” that is worn over the head and the rest of the dancer’s body is hidden by blackened raffia fibres and cloth. Since the mask serves as the visual connection to the spiritual world, the officials’ faces and bodies are not visible and thus conceal any human attributes. This way, the leaders can fully embody the characteristics of the spirit. The spirit of Sowei represents the ideals and authority of the society and is understood as the Sande society’s teacher, healer, and judge (Boone 36). Senior officials of the Sande also adopt specific roles when wearing these costumes; some frighten the audience while others serve as comic relief in the ceremony.
Photo credit: africaafrica.uima.uiowa.eduuima.uiowa.edu
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