Sowei Helmet Masks

of the Sande society

Sande society members with Sowei masks. Image: Mt. Holyoke College.

The present lot is an exceptional example of a Sowei helmet mask-- the only known mask in African cultures made specifically to be worn and danced by women. It is used by the powerful, all-female Sande societies throughout Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and the Ivory Coast during puberty initiation rites for young girls. It is also occasionally used in politically important masquerades, such as funerals or crownings of chiefs.

Ndoli jowei (dancing sowei) during a performance

The mask serves to embody and teach the ideals of feminine beauty and behavior to the young women; the high forehead, dark, glossy skin, cheek scarifications and intricate hairstyle are all markers of outward physical beauty, which reflect an inner strength of moral character and dignity. The half-closed, downturn eyes show the importance of humility while the small mouth and ears warn of the dangers of gossip and ill-talk of others. Neck fat rolls, here decorated with linear carvings, are a signifier of fertility and show that, during this time, the young girls are fed rich, fatty foods. This example also still has an intact raffia skirt, which helps protect the anonymity of the wearer during this transitional and vulnerable time.

Mende women, late 19th century, wearing a similar hairstyle as seen in the present lot. Photo: Allridge.

Sowei masks are commissioned in secret and made by men. The surface is sanded with ficus leaves, stained black with a dye made from the leaves and then coated with palm oil to produce a deep, brilliant sheen. This practice mirrors one of the final rituals of the initiation rites; throughout the rites, the girls are made to wear white clay all over their bodies so that they appear pallid and unattractive, and before they are brought back to the village, they are washed in the river (whose bed contains the sacred  sande, or healing medicine, from which the society derives its power) and rubbed with oil to make their skin glisten.

Young girls wearing white clay as part of the initiation rites of the Sande society. Photo: Ruth Phillips.

At the end of the rites, a performance with the Sowei mask marks the reintegration of not only the young women but also the Sande society as a whole back into the village. Going forward, the Sande women continue to be a lifelong source of support and guidance for the young women. Soon after, they are married and the Sowei mask is kept in a high-ranking Sande official's home, where it exists merely as an object; only when the mask is danced, and when it and the dancer together become ngafa (spirit) does it reach its true fullness of being.

Sande teachings have a tremendous impact on women's lives: how they negotiate their relationships with men; which aspects of their society can be questioned and which cannot; what constitutes beauty, manners, and etiquette; how a woman should handle disappointment and good fortune; and the way to show respect for the sacred - all are present in this performance.

Pamela McClusky, Beauty Stripped of Human Flaws: Sowei Masks

The Mark Isaacson
and Greg Nacozy Collection

The Collection of Mark Isaacson and Greg Nacozy includes over two-hundred works from one of the most significant figures in mid-century collecting. Mark established the influential Fifty/50 gallery in New York in 1981 (later partnering with Mark McDonald and Ralph Cutler in 1983), which shaped the tastes and collecting habits of many and brought furniture, decorative arts and jewelry from the 1930s, 40s and 50s to the forefront of the market at a time when they were largely overlooked.

Greg Nacozy and Mark Isaacson in Venice, c. 1985 

Fifty/50’s and Mark’s legacy is most closely associated with bringing Italian art glass to the United States (Mark even advised the MET on their Italian glass collection) and raising the profile of mid-century furniture and American studio jewelry and ceramics; iconic examples of each are represented in this auction, including an early Rudder Stool by Isamu Noguchi, Charlotte Perriand’s and Pierre Jeanneret’s Bahut No. 2, a Gerrit Rietveld Zig-Zag chair, pottery by Edwin and Mary Scheier and Fausto Melotti, and Venini glassworks.

The most exciting aspects of this auction are the more intimate ones—the works from Mark's and Greg's personal collection that speak to Mark's eclectic taste, his boundless curiosity and sensitivity toward objects and art, and how generous he was in sharing his interests with others and letting them share with him. Standouts include several works by Robert Mapplethorpe—who was close friends with Mark, photographed several Fifty/50 catalogs and got many of the ceramics in his photographs from the gallery—the ecstatic wood construction Wild Plant by Leo Amino, a painting by Ralston Crawford of a spectacularly minimalist skyscraper façade, and photographic works by Man Ray, Edward Weston, Lynn Davis and Dorothea Lange.

Mark with Ed and Mary Scheier; Robert Mapplethorpe and Mark

This auction also features many works that tie together the thread of Mark’s collecting practices, going beyond the downtown New York sensibilities of the 1980s and showing the scope of eras and cultures that interested him; the sgraffito incisions on a 1940s Scheier vase echo the geometric features of a Senufo Kpeliye'e mask, the entrancing and complex shadows of a grain elevator in a photograph by Ralston Crawford contrast with the severe plainness of a New York City step-back building captured by Walker Evans, and the radical gestures of gay image making are seen in the works of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus and Robert Loughlin. One of the artists in this sale, George Dureau, a photographer from New Orleans (where Greg is also from) who greatly influenced Mapplethorpe early in his career, perhaps best captures the spirit of this collection, saying about his own work:

“I live a warm, involved, humanist sort of life. There are lots of people passing through it. I have exciting experiences and learn things about people. They always go into my art. I cannot have an experience and it not go into my art.”
Mark and a friend at Brimfield; Mark's and Greg's apartment; Mark and Greg at The Armory Show

Fifty/50 gallery reshaped the collecting market during its twelve-year existence, closing in 1993 after Mark passed away from AIDS; his partner Greg has cared for the collection since.  The Collection of Mark Isaacson and Greg Nacozy offers an opportunity to see a short but impactful life lived through an enthusiasm for art and design, one that inspired many to see and appreciate objects and live with them as fully as Mark did.