Bryn Mawr College Art & Archaeology Collections

Mende Sande Society
Helmets from the Helen and Mace Neufeld Collection of African Art

February 8, 1999 through March 8, 1999
Rhys Carpenter Library for Art, Archaeology, and Cities

The Sande Society mask, or sowo-wui, is worn by Mende women of Sierra Leone, and has the distinction of being one of the few ritual masks worn by African women.

The Sande, or Bundu, Society is a fellowship of women who are responsible for preparing young Mende girls for adulthood, and for their roles as wives, mothers and female community members. At the girls' initiation, which is still practiced into the twentieth century, a society member appears in full costume as Sowo, the water spirit of the Sande Society, and walks with the grace and elegance expected of Mende women. The costumed woman wears a black gown of raffia fibers that conceals her body, and the mask rests over her head on her shoulders. This dark mask "exalts the far-famed beauty of Mende women," (1) and represents the sculpted head of Sowo.

The mask itself is a conical helmet that rests on top of the raffia costume, and is described by observers as "truly a glamorous being...the mask joins the community together in the experience of its beauty and allure." (2) The artist, carefully chosen by the Society, carves the face with the attention a woman would give her own appearance. The mask's appearance exemplifies Mende women's physical and moral beauty and cannot fall short of the Mende ideal. The artist coats the mask with palm oil, which gives it the black, lustrous shine - the color of the spirit of the waters. A sleek, luminous surface is achieved and the mask takes on a glow, which seems to come from the inner light of life.

The ideal Mende mask has clearly defined features created by delicate, dainty carving. The neck with its rings of flesh, the face, and the coiffure make up the three divisions of the mask. These must be in perfect symmetry, with the coiffure as the largest and most elaborate part of the mask. The features of the face are held to a standard, while distinctions occur among the coiffures.

Coiffures: The hair styles of the Mende masks are quite varied, and some are ornately decorated. A thick head of hair is admired, and these are designed into coiffures that indicate elegance, wealth, and femininity. The beautiful styles are very complicated and very neat to convey conscientious grooming and good behavior, while adornments to the coiffures exhibit individuality. The perfect style of Sowo's hair indicates her supernatural status, and contrasts with the wildness of the raffia costume. A perfect coiffure connects the mask to the divine world.

Neck Rings: The neck rings at the base of the mask are an exaggeration of actual neck creases. Mende people consider a beautiful neck to be one with rings: they are a sign of beauty because they suggest wealth, high status, and are sexually attractive. The rings indicate prosperity and wholesome living, and are given by God to show his affection for a fortunate few. As well, the rings indicate a relationship with the divine: the Sowo itself is a deity from the waters, and the neck rings represent the concentric waves which are formed on still water by Sowo's head breaking through the surface. The spirit comes from the water, and what the human eye sees on the necks of women "is human in form, but divine in essence," as portrayed in the mask. (3)

Facial Features: The neck rings cradle a small face whose features are situated at its bottom half. The face itself is carved in a compact space which is dominated by the eyes. Each feature is specially carved to convey Mende ideals of beauty and female behavior.

The Brow: The most outstanding feature of the masks face is the brow. This exaggerated brow symbolizes poise and success. The brow shines and is never covered by hair, which indicates happiness and self-confidence.

The Mouth: The small pursed mouth of the Sande Society mask indicates composure, and forbids flirtation or smiling. The Sowo's mouth is sealed so no female secrets are revealed. The Mende society discourages spiteful talk which can cause suffering, thus silence becomes an indication of composure and sound judgment. The mask shows the ideal mouth: an image of perfect silence.

The Nose: Sowos' nose is delicate and sharp, and small like the mouth. The Mende people loathe bad smells, and women are considered to have a stronger sense of smell than men. Despite this quality, the nose of the sowo-wui is discreet, never large or suggestive of her strong sense of smell.

The Eyes: The eye is the supreme element of the body, and the most interesting component of the head because it is considered a human's most beautiful physical trait. The Mende believe that eyes are goodness, and reveal a person's genuine feelings. The eyes on the mask are heavily lidded, downcast, and barely open. The slit eyes have many meanings: they conceal the identity of the masked Society member, and make it impossible for the woman to communicate with others using her eyes. As Sowo is too exalted to look in the eye, her lowered lids prevent anyone from looking into her eyes. The eyes also give an air of calmness and gentleness, characteristics which are attractive to Mende people. The dreamy look given the mask is very sexual to Mende men, but such a look also reassures a husband that his wife is not trying to make eye contact with other men.

Scarification: The small marks found beneath the eyes on a Sande Society mask may be identity marks formally used by the Mende. These are rarely, if ever, found on modern Mende people.

All the Sande Society helmet masks on display are part of the generous gift of African and Pacific Art from Mace Neufeld and Helen Katz Neufeld '53.

1) African Art, Michel Leiris, Jacqueline Delange, Golden Press NY 1968
2) Radiance from the Waters, Sylvia Ardyn Boone, Yale University Press, 1986.
3) Radiance from the Waters, Sylvia Ardyn Boone, Yale University Press, 1986.

This exhibit and its accompanying text was prepared by Catherine Foster '99. All photographs of helmet masks from the College's Collections are the work of Molly Greenfield'01.

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