Mende helmet mask
"Bundu" or "Sowei" mask
Sande society

Sierra Leone and Liberia

In sub-Saharan Africa only men are normally permitted on ritual occasions to
wear wooden masks. This black helmet mask is worn exclusively by women. The
practice of women wearing masks seems to have been brought to several
populations of  Sierra Leone and Liberia, such as the Temne, Gola and Vai, by
the Mende and Mande-speaking people from the northern savanna. Because of
the similarity of mask styles and the itinerant pathways of noted carvers, it is
difficult to assign some masks to a particular ethnic group.

In the 19th century the Mende were organized into independent chiefdoms;
families and individuals were ranked according to their land-use rights.
Industrious rice farmers, the Mende number approximately two million people.
The rituals of their women's society, called Sande, require the appearance of
masked figures. Within such a large population there are many variations in local
practices and carving styles, but there is broad agreement on the nature of the
mask itself.

The mask presents an ideal of feminine beauty admired by the Mende: elaborate
hairstyle, full forehead and small facial features. The gleaming surface signifies
healthy, glowing skin. The swelling fleshy rolls alternating with deep incised lines
at the neck or back of the head are considered marks of beauty and a promise
of fecundity. The neck is broad to fit over the head of the woman who will wear
it.    Sande officials commission male carvers to produce the mask in secret. The
surface is smoothed with the rough leaves of the ficus tree, then dyed black with
a concoction made of leaves. Before use, it is anointed with palm oil to make it
shine. (Modern carvers use black shoe polish.)

With this confining mask, the wearer (who has to be a good dancer and an
official of the Sande) puts on a thick cotton costume covered with heavy fibre
strands dyed black. Her dances may last for over two hours. The sacredness of
the mask lies in its deeper meaning as a representation of the long deceased
founder of Sande society. In pre-colonial times women could hold the position of
chief of a village cluster; until the 1970s women politicians continued to use the
Sande society to support and further their careers in modern government. With
increasingly rigorous Islamisation, however, the Sande society is being seriously
modified or even disbanded.     
Sande mask shown dancing in Bumpe in 1974 is from "African
Art in the Cycle of Life", by Roy Sieber and Roslyn A. Walker
The mask is now in the
collection of Gary Schulze, USA
and the mask can be seen in photos on this page.
"The costume worn with the black mask is made of layers of raffia fibers that have also been dyed black. These are attached to the lower portion of
the neck as well as to a black cloth shirt or gown worn over the body. The sleeves are sewn shut, and long stockings or men's shoes are worn. No
part of the body is left exposed, for revealing the body would expose the human agency behind the mask to the eyes of nonmembers, and would
also allow the spirit to enter the human dancer rather than the mask.

Masked dancing provides a festive mood appropriate to the completion of the several stages of initiation. Masks are seen in public at several key
moments during the process. Their appearances serve to announce to families of initiates that certain stages have been successfully accomplished
and that preparation of foods and gifts of money must be completed. A mask may collect food from the community to take back to where initiation is
taking place. She comes into the community to announce the imminent coming out of the girls, and she leads them into town on their first visit after
the process has started. Finally, she leads the richly dressed girls into town when they have completed their training and are released. This is the
high point of the entire process, for the girls are now recognized as marriageable, adult women.

The mask may appear at other times to bring justice to offenders of Sande law, to perform in respect at the funeral of an important leader of the
society, and to participate in ceremonies in which a new mask is initiated into the work of Sande. Nowö is accepted as a living presence. The spirit
speaks not through words but through the language of dance, referring to moral and social doctrines of beauty, serenity, dignity, control, order, and
balance. Dance movements exaggerate the powers of ordinary women and dramatize the ideals of feminine beauty."

Excerpt above from: Poynor, Robin. 1995. African Art at the Harn Museum: Spirit Eyes, Human Hands. pp. 185-191.
From the book: Hair in African Art and Culture
Some of the numerous styles in which the upper Mende women dressed their hair.
You can see the influence of the hair in the masks.
Photo: Allridge, late 19th century.
To hear a Mende woman, named Hannah Foday, talk about the Sowei masks click on the link
below to go to the Philadelphia  Museum of Art's "African Voices" exhibition.
Just click on Sierra Leone on the map or "Mende:  Hannah Foday."
I currently do not have a Mende mask in my collection
Examples below for reference purposes
Sande Society Mask, 16" Mende, Sierra Leone - Collection of Gary Schulze
Metal-banded horns adorn this mask shown in 1976 at the Sande masquerade in a village in the Bumpe Chiefdom, Sierra Leone.
This mask is the same on that was shown in the photo in the beginning of this page. Some years after that photo was taken, the
mask was brought out of its culture of origin into the western art market. As comparison reveals, the Koranic amulet that originally
topped the carving is no longer there. Subsequent to the photo, the amulet broke off at the narrowest point in the carving. It is
possible that the decision to sell the mask was prompted by this break.
Both masks from the Collection of Gary Schulze
Gonde Mask, 15" Mende, Sierra Leone
When a Sande mask became old and eroded, it was
sometimes reinvented as Gonde, a character in the coterie of
festival dances. Where Sande is sedate and correct, Gonde is
the reverse, irreverent and irrascible. The mask is often
spotted or painted, contrasting it with the sleek black of the
Sande mask.
Collection of Gary Schulze
A Mende mask and costume on display at the
American Museum of Natural History in NY
Example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY


estimate 5,000—7,000 USD
Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   9,000 USD

height 17in. 43cm

of hollowed ovoid form, flaring at the collar and pierced around the rim for attachment, the
compressed facial features delicately carved with almond-shaped, downcast eyes with incised
brows beneath a large domed forehead, with multiple neck rings to the reverse and wearing an
elaborate coiffure divided into three primary horizontal sections each decorated with pointed
square elements and rows of braids, the whole terminating in vertical tripartite fins; fine, layered,
blackened patina.

B.C. Holland, Chicago
SOTHEBY'S France June 2005 - LOT 87


estimate 20,000—35,000 EUR
Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   16,800 EUR

Collecté sur le terrain en 1979
Sotheby's - New York
African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art
Auction Date : Nov 11, 2004

of conial form, and pierced around the rim for attachment, with four diminutive flat faces decorating the perimeter, two with pierced slit eyes,
the larger faces framed by flat crescent ears, and each forehead tapering to a peak, and set against a shared coiffure of varied geometric
motif, all beneath four short horns protruding at the crown and framing a rounded flange; heavily encrusted patina of deep brown overlaid by
white and pink/brown ochre pigments.

height 14 in. 35.5cm

Estimate:$ 10,000 - $ 15,000  
Price Realized:$ 12,000    

Carlo Monzino Collection

Cf. Gottschalk (1990:176) for a related mask showing four faces and a flange at the top.

Four-faced masks from the Gola and Vai of the Liberian border area are exceptionally rare. The Vai and Gola share a very close cultural
relationship. The very first masks of this typewere found in the coastal region of Liberia among the Vai, on the Sherbro Islands among the
Bullom, and further Northwest among the Bullom in the coastal region of the mainland according to Gottschalk (personal communication). As
there was much mixing and sharing between not only the Gola and Via, but also the Mende, it is impossible to say which group may have
invented the four-faced mask. However, the earliest one known to have been collected was found in 1869 (American Museum of Natural
History, no, 17.160). Another was collected by Zeller in 1885 and a third, one of the oldest, was bought by Büttikofer before 1885 from a
missionary called Watson in Tula (Fisherman's Lake) which is in the Vai country (Historisches Museum, Bern).

This fine old mask bears white markings. The cross on each forehead (according to Gottschalk ibid.) and the big dots covering the surface
are markings of the 'yassi', 'humoi' and 'njayei' or 'njayekoi', small medicine societies found amongst the Mende, Gola, Vai and Bullom. The
'yassi' and 'njayei' mimic dots found painted on young girls. The painted masks of the medicine societies are extremely rare as the societies
preferred to work with statues. The Sande society, amongst the Mende by contrast, prefers the more refined and delicate masks which have
been painted completely black, the color of motherhood.

The four faces on this mask suggest that nothing can be hidden from the mask as the mask sees everything, depicted as it is with a face
looking in all directions.
Additional information
The Sande Society mask, or sowo-wui, is worn by Mende women of Sierra Leone, and has the distinction of being one of the few ritual masks
worn by African women.

The Sande, or Bundu, Society is a fellowship of women who are responsible for preparing young Mende girls for adulthood, and for their roles as
wives, mothers and female community members. At the girls' initiation, which is still practiced into the twentieth century, a society member appears
in full costume as Sowo, the water spirit of the Sande Society, and walks with the grace and elegance expected of Mende women. The costumed
woman wears a black gown of raffia fibers that conceals her body, and the mask rests over her head on her shoulders. This dark mask "exalts the
far-famed beauty of Mende women," (1) and represents the sculpted head of Sowo.

The mask itself is a conical helmet that rests on top of the raffia costume, and is described by observers as "truly a glamorous being...the mask
joins the community together in the experience of its beauty and allure." (2) The artist, carefully chosen by the Society, carves the face with the
attention a woman would give her own appearance. The mask's appearance exemplifies Mende women's physical and moral beauty and cannot
fall short of the Mende ideal. The artist coats the mask with palm oil, which gives it the black, lustrous shine - the color of the spirit of the waters. A
sleek, luminous surface is achieved and the mask takes on a glow, which seems to come from the inner light of life.

The ideal Mende mask has clearly defined features created by delicate, dainty carving. The neck with its rings of flesh, the face, and the coiffure
make up the three divisions of the mask. These must be in perfect symmetry, with the coiffure as the largest and most elaborate part of the mask.
The features of the face are held to a standard, while distinctions occur among the coiffures.

Coiffures: The hair styles of the Mende masks are quite varied, and some are ornately decorated. A thick head of hair is admired, and these are
designed into coiffures that indicate elegance, wealth, and femininity. The beautiful styles are very complicated and very neat to convey
conscientious grooming and good behavior, while adornments to the coiffures exhibit individuality. The perfect style of Sowo's hair indicates her
supernatural status, and contrasts with the wildness of the raffia costume. A perfect coiffure connects the mask to the divine world.

Neck Rings: The neck rings at the base of the mask are an exaggeration of actual neck creases. Mende people consider a beautiful neck to be
one with rings: they are a sign of beauty because they suggest wealth, high status, and are sexually attractive. The rings indicate prosperity and
wholesome living, and are given by God to show his affection for a fortunate few. As well, the rings indicate a relationship with the divine: the
Sowo itself is a deity from the waters, and the neck rings represent the concentric waves which are formed on still water by Sowo's head breaking
through the surface. The spirit comes from the water, and what the human eye sees on the necks of women "is human in form, but divine in
essence," as portrayed in the mask. (3)  

Facial Features:
The neck rings cradle a small face whose features are situated at its bottom half. The face itself is carved in a compact space which is dominated
by the eyes. Each feature is specially carved to convey Mende ideals of beauty and female behavior.

The Brow: The most outstanding feature of the masks face is the brow. This exaggerated brow symbolizes poise and success. The brow shines
and is never covered by hair, which indicates happiness and self-confidence.

The Mouth: The small pursed mouth of the Sande Society mask indicates composure, and forbids flirtation or smiling. The Sowo's mouth is sealed
so no female secrets are revealed. The Mende society discourages spiteful talk which can cause suffering, thus silence becomes an indication of
composure and sound judgment. The mask shows the ideal mouth: an image of perfect silence.

Scarification: The small marks found beneath the eyes on a Sande Society mask may be identity marks formally used by the Mende. These are
rarely, if ever, found on modern Mende people.

The Nose: Sowos' nose is delicate and sharp, and small like the mouth. The Mende people loathe bad smells, and women are considered to have
a stronger sense of smell than men. Despite this quality, the nose of the sowo-wui is discreet, never large or suggestive of her strong sense of

The Eyes: The eye is the supreme element of the body, and the most interesting component of the head because it is considered a human's
most beautiful physical trait. The Mende believe that eyes are goodness, and reveal a person's genuine feelings. The eyes on the mask are
heavily lidded, downcast, and barely open. The slit eyes have many meanings: they conceal the identity of the masked Society member, and
make it impossible for the woman to communicate with others using her eyes. As Sowo is too exalted to look in the eye, her lowered lids prevent
anyone from looking into her eyes. The eyes also give an air of calmness and gentleness, characteristics which are attractive to Mende people.
The dreamy look given the mask is very sexual to Mende men, but such a look also reassures a husband that his wife is not trying to make eye
contact with other men.  

All the Sande Society helmet masks on display are part of the generous gift of African and Pacific Art from Mace Neufeld and Helen Katz Neufeld

1) African Art, Michel Leiris, Jacqueline Delange, Golden Press NY 1968
2) Radiance from the Waters, Sylvia Ardyn Boone, Yale University Press, 1986.
3) Radiance from the Waters, Sylvia Ardyn Boone, Yale University Press, 1986.

This exhibit and its accompanying text was prepared by Catherine Foster '99. All photographs of helmet masks from the College's Collections are
the work of Molly Greenfield '01.

The example above is a wonderful Mende prestige figure
in the
collection of Gary Schultze, USA
32" tall
Lots of additional examples can be seen from the Arman Collection page on my site.

to go to the Mende masks from the Arman Collection

African maternity figures page

Rand African Art
home page