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Work of the Week: Ndoli Jowei Mask

This mask would have been worn by a woman in the powerful, all-female Sande society, a group in Sierra Leone through which many women were educated and exercised their political, religious, and social power. The society provided members with a lifelong network and also was an important sponsor of masquerades, which were performed to mark significant events in society, such as funerals, visits from honored guests, or initiation ceremonies.

In masquerade costume, the Sande women represented the spirit that animated and supported their organization. The masks were worn with costumes of blackened raffia fibers and exemplified the physical and spiritual beauty that was the Sande ideal. The deep, shiny black surface recalls the smooth skin of young initiates and the downcast eyes, scarification marks, demure mouth, and styled hair communicate dignity and composure. The neck rings and a high forehead also add to the mask’s beauty. The hairstyle is elaborately embellished with cowrie shells, a diamond-shaped amulet, horns, male and female figures, and a bird. The cowrie shells indicate wealth and status, the amulet and horns serve as traditional containers for protective medicines, and the bird represents a messenger to the spirit world. In the 1990s, Sierra Leone’s civil war ended these practices.

This mask is on view now in Gallery 137.

Image Credit: Mask for Sande Society (Ndoli Jowei), Early/mid-20th century (before 1940). Sierra Leone. Through prior acquisitions of the George F. Harding Collection, Mr. and Mrs. Herbert R. Molner, and the Ada Turnbull Hertle Endowment.