Antique Mende Wooden African Helmet Mask from Sierra Leone

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  • $1,600


Antique Mende Helmet Mask. The masks of the Sande society provide a unique example of masquerade performed and controlled by women in sub-Saharan Africa, where masking is normally a male perogative. Sande is the female hale, medicine, society of the Mende people, one of the largest ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. A male hale society, Poro, is also present. Public masquerades are an important part of Mende life, mediating between community at large and the societies that are central to education and social development.

The masks used by the Sande appear primarily during the initiation cycle: periods of education and ceremony for young girls celebrating their transformation into adulthood, a time that includes training in the knowledge, skills, and behaviors necessary for adulthood. The initiation includes the operation of clitoridectomy, an operation that is an important part of this transition, but a source of controversy to outsiders. To be uninitiated means to be incomplete as a woman, never to become a nyaha- a woman who has become part of the Sande.

In Mende thought, physical beauty and strong moral character are interwoven and inseparable. Ideal attributes of female beauty are honed from the time a girl is an infant until after marriage. The Sowo mask illustrates the importance of being nyande, a term meaning both “beautiful” and “good” (Boone, 1986, p. 138).

Sowo masks are divided into three structural components- the neck, face, and coiffure. Carved from a single block of lightweight wood, the masks weigh only two to four pounds. The mask displays a shiny black surface representative of the value assigned to smooth dark skin. In Mende language, the term teli means both “black” and “wet”- an especially significant point in that the hale is often identified as a river dwelling spirit (Phillips, 1980, p. 114).

Character, wisdom and promises of prosperity are conveyed through the high forehead. Mende women admire neck creases as prized beauty traits, an aesthetic criterion given artistic play in the mask. The highly stylized rings around the neck of the mask not only reflect ideal beauty, but also signify fertility and good health. The eyes are small, either cast down or nearly closed. The downcast eyes are associated with the nonhuman and mysterious essence of the spirit inhabiting the mask. The mouth is closed or only slightly open, suggestive of seriousness and silence .

An individually designed and elaborate coiffure is the most prominent feature of the mask. The women’s art of hairstyling swerves as both a personal beauty statement and a reflection of social prestige among the Sande. Masks feature intricate braids, weavings, and buns reflective of actual Mende hairstyles. Mask coiffures are further embellished with additions of symbolic motifs such birds, snakes, cooking pots, cowrie shells, amulets, charms, crests, and crowns. These adornments refer to Sande traditions, proverbs, and teachings.

When Sowo masquerade appears in performance, the mask is worn with one or more capes of dyed black palm fiber around her neck and waist and under these a shirt, pants, and shoes that completely cover the body. When worn by the Sowei, a woman of title and rank at the highest leadership level of the Sande Society, a white scarf encircles the coiffure, white being the color representative of the spiritual world in Sande symbolism. The Sowei are considered to be superhuman among the Mende, and when in costume, these women literally personify the Sande hale and an embodiment of ngafa, its spirit. The mask is also worn by the ndoli jowei, an expert in dance who dances the mask in public and teaches dancing to initiates, The ndoli jowei is of the ligba rank, the second highest rank.

The mask is the embodiment of the influence Sande has in every aspect of a Mende woman’s life. The mask brings into physical form the Sande spirit, while simultaneously reflecting ideals of social, ethical, and spiritual values instilled by this powerful society.

Age late 19th to early 20th century. Measurements: 13inches high X 8 x10 Provenance: Acquired from the estate of a Manhattan collector originally purchased from Sotheby's Park Benet auction of April 11, 1975 Lot 63. Condition: Overall very good, Small restoration approximately 2 inches by 1.5 inches on left side, some repaired cracks

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Item ID: DS-021