Sherbro or Mende
Sierra Leone
Mask for Sande Society (Sowei)
Early/mid-20th century (before 1940)

Wood
48.3 x 24.8 x 26.7 cm (19 x 9 3/4 x 10 1/2 in.)
Through prior acquisitions of the George F. Harding Collection, Mr. and Mrs. Herbert R. Molner, and the Ada Turnbull Hertle Endowment, 1997.361

Among the culturally related peoples of southeastern Sierra Leone, masquerades are performed to mark significant events in society. The powerful, all-female Sande society, an important sponsor of masquerades, provides its members with a lifelong support network. Senior Sande officials perform wearing masks such as this one at funerals, to honor important visitors, or during the initiation of young women into the society. In costume, the women represent the spirit that animates and supports their organization. The masks are made by male sculptors and worn in performance by women with costumes of blackened raffia fibers. As part of the arduous initiation process to become a Sande member, young women learn the complex sowei songs and dances.

The sowei mask evokes an ideal. The deep, shiny black surface recalls the smooth skin of young initiates and the deep pools of water where Sande’s guardian spirit resides. The downcast eyes, scarification marks, demure mouth, and styled hair communicate dignity and composure. Neck rings and a high forehead add to the mask’s beauty. The coiffure is elaborately embellished with cowrie shells, a diamond-shaped amulet, horns, male and female figures, and a bird. Cowrie shells indicate wealth and status. The amulet and horns are traditional containers for protective medicines, and the bird is a messenger for the spirit world. Through the artist’s virtuosity, the idealized figures of this sowei mask wonderfully convey the values of the Sande society.