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