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    Capturing the Sacred, the Secret and the Ephemeral

    By Kara Kelly Milner


     This exhibition features a collection of sowei masks from the Bayly Museum of Art at the University of Virginia. Sowei masks are used by members of the Sande women’s society of the Mende and other peoples of Sierra Leone and the surrounding region. The text panels and photographs that follow discuss Mende culture and lifestyle as well as Sande ritual and belief. The exhibit describes the feminine ideals represented by sowei, mask of the Sande society spirit and the only known African mask danced by women. Finally, the exhibit examines the ways in which sowei masks have been displayed over time and the complexities of exhibiting these objects in a Western museum context.

The Mende

     The Mende are a West African agricultural people living in southern Sierra Leone and adjoining areas of Liberia. Numbering around one million, the Mende today represent one of the most populous ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. The language they speak is called Mande. Most Mende consider themselves Muslim, though pre-Islamic ritual activity continues to figure prominently among their religious practices.

     Among Western art historians, the Mende are known for their carved wooden masks and masking traditions. Over time, the Mende’s artistic styles have blended with those of the neighboring Sherbro-Bullom, Krim, Vai, Gola, and Temne peoples. These groups, along with the Kissi and Bassa peoples, all use the Sande society Sowei masks made famous by the Mende.

Women and Men in Mende Society

     Women and men comprise complementary aspects of Mende society. Their roles within Mende families and communities are different, but both are necessary and important. Mende girls and boys learn about their roles and responsibilities during adolescence, at the time of their circumcision and induction into the societies of Sande (for women) and Poro (for men).

     Kinship in Mende society is patrilineal (land inheritance passed from a father to his brothers and sons). Rice is the staple crop produced by the Mende and its cultivation requires the cooperation of all members of the community. The Mende are virilocal (upon marriage, women leave their natal villages and go to live with their husbands) and

    polygamous. The economics of rice farming require men who wish to be successful to have more than two wives. Though wives are subservient to their husbands, Mende women regulate their own behavior as well as that of men and influence public affairs through their participation in Sande.

The Sande Society

Sande nyaha ndopo ii le

    “A Sande woman is not a child”

    -- Mende proverb

     Initiation into the Sande society is almost universal for Mende females, just as initiation into the corresponding Poro society is for Mende males. Acceptance into the society, for rural Mende at least, is considered a precondition to marriage and is necessary in order to be considered an adult woman by the Mende community. Ultimately, a girl who undergoes initiation into Sande society is to emerge as the embodiment of Mende values pertaining to womanhood: she is healthy, fertile, beautiful, composed and spiritually strong. The unity of womanhood she has joined provides meaning and a network of support that sustains her in many ways throughout the rest of her life.


     For females, initiation occurs prior to marriage, around the age of fifteen (though it may have occurred earlier in the past). Girls of age in a given village are taken from their homes by the women of the community to an enclosure outside the village called a kpanguima, built especially for the occasion. Initiation begins with a girl’s clitoridectomy. This procedure, which has been modified over time, is considered necessary to the shaping of a proper Mende woman by removing a vestige of her maleness (Poro circumcision likewise removes the remaining “femaleness” of a Mende man). As is the case in many initiation rites worldwide, the physical pain involved in the procedure serves to heighten an initiate’s awareness and the significance of what she will learn in the days ahead. It also helps to forge what anthropologist Victor Turner labeled “communitas” -- a fellowship among those enduring the hardship -- resulting in lifelong bonds of friendship between groups of initiates.

     Following circumcision, the initiates spends a period of partial seclusion in the kpanguima. As many aspects of Sande are considered secret and unable to be shared with nonmembers, not all details of what goes on during this period are known. Ethnographers do know that the girls receive training related to hygiene, nutrition, sexuality, marriage and motherhood. They also learn a variety of traditional songs and dances. The structure of the organization and its processes reinforces customary deference to older women in the society.

     Art historian Sylvia Boone refers to the Sande society as “the ruling, governing institution in a female’s life” and “the most vigorous and important of West Africa’s

    female associations.” It’s membership includes women from many ethnicities throughout Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and, in the mid-1980s, numbered more than 1.5 million women.

Spirit and Power in Action: Sowei, Hale and Ndoli Jowei

“A Sowei is the white light of the village among women.”

    -- Chief Fodo Kai

     Sowei is a term used to describe the highest rank of Sande society officials, as well as the Sande maskers. In both cases, Sowei contain the spirit, or ngafa, of the Sande society. The Mende describe this spirit as that of tingoi, a female water divinity (affiliated with the pan-West African “Mammy Wata” image) who possesses all of the

    characteristics of the perfect Mende woman. When Mende are asked about aspects of feminine beauty, they often respond that these elements are ke Tingoi -- “like Tingoi.”

     Both the Sande and the Poro societies perform their functions through possession of a medicine called hale. Hale is described as a substance found in the bush that is powerful and dangerous. It can cause significant harm as well as good, therefore it must be handled with great care and only by experts with the proper ritual knowledge.

     The sowei masker, known as ndoli jowei -- “the Sowei who dances” -- represents

    an ideal. As art historian Ruth Phillips states: “the masker assumes a triple identity a

    spirit of the Sande society, powerful medicine of the Sande, and leader or teacher of the members and initiates.” As a personification of traditional moral values, an ndoli jowei maintains social order through her public appearances. Such appearances occur at key moments during Sande initiation, helping to sanctify the event and contribute to the general spirit of celebration. Ndoli jowei appear at other times as a means of demonstrating the strength and unity of the women: during ceremonies marking the death of an old chief or the crowning of a new one, during celebrations held in honor of an important guest to a village, following the death of an important ligba (official of the Sande society) or during the initiation of a new mask into the Sande society. Especially in times past, ndoli jowei enforced the laws of their communities by pointing out offenders and leading them to the village chief in order that payment might be exacted and justice served.

Sande masquerades

     Sowei masks are the objects of this exhibition. According to Mende belief, however, one cannot separate the Sande headpiece from its costume or dancer because the sowei masked figure is a spirit. There is no Mande word for mask that distinguishes the headpiece from these other elements. In addition to the headpiece, the ndoli jowei’s costume is comprised of capes of black-dyed raffia tied around the neck and waist. Under these are worn a shirt, pants and shoes, all usually black, that cover the dancer’s

    skin completely. She carries a switch in one hand, and bells tied to the costume jingle

    when she moves. Various charms and amulets may be attached to the costume in order to increase her powers and provide protection from witchcraft.

     A sowei masker usually emerges from some sort of enclosure. Her appearance is heralded by the ligba accompanying her, who announces the masker’s personal name to the crowd in attendance. Phillips describes the dancing of an ndoli jowei: “The footwork

    is quick and abrupt, and the dancer moves her feet in a rapid series of steps capable of much individual variation. The raffia capes flare out and swirl in wide circles with the dipping and turning of the dancer.”; A group of Sande women accompany the dancing

    by singing and shaking segbura (instruments made of gourds, netting and seeds). Men beat drums in accompaniment.

     Phillips argues that Sande masquerades must be understood in context as one of a set of Mende masquerades, including the satirical parallel masquerade of gonde. Gonde is a masker who performers primarily for entertainment purposes, parodying the sowei masker. Whereas the sowei headpieces are smooth, beautiful, and highly polished, the gonde mask is rough, ugly and dirty -- perhaps an old sowei mask discarded because of damage. While the sowei is silent, the gonde speaks, asking the audience for money and respect she does not deserve. The masker’s costume is sparse and unkempt, and her behavior is unrefined and unbecoming; she is the antithesis of sowei. The Mende say of Gonde: Gonde a lua Sowei make ti hugbate -- “Gonde fears Sowei, but that is their


Sowei masks

     Sande masks have common elements that identify them to their audience as a sowei, representation of the Sande ngafa. The headpiece must be a helmet mask fitting closely over the head of the wearer; it depicts an anthropomorphic head with an elaborate hairstyle and a ringed neck. The eyes are downcast or closed, with slits through which the masker sees cut across the carved eye (or its edge), or in the neck. These slits are positioned to be as inconspicuous as possible. The mouth is shown as closed or very slightly opened. Finally, the mask is stained black.

     The blackness of sowei distinguishes it from all other Mende maskers. The closed mouth indicates silence and seriousness. The downcast eyes are associated with the mask’s supernatural essence, while the elaborate hairstyle indicates status and prestige. These hairstyles may be ornamented with a variety of symbolic or popular objects: animals, shells, amulets, etc. The ringed neck is a sign of health and beauty. (The Mende saying numu wova yaa ye tia woo ti nyandema ngi bolo woma gbee means “if an old woman tells you she was beautiful in her youth, ask to see the back of her

    neck” -- a crease in the back of the neck at the collarbone is supposed to be a sign of beauty that never fades.)

     Phillips explains that, while at one time sowei masks were commissioned by Sande leaders, for the most part now they are purchased ready made from carvers who have little knowledge of Sande ritual symbolism. As a result, their visual representation varies, though carvers do study and copy older examples of masks as part of their craft.

    Artists such as Pa Toma, a carver from Gbangbatoke, Banta, explains that a spirit inspires the creation of every mask he has carved. His helper spirit appears to him in the form of a beautiful woman while he works in seclusion.;

{The Bayly Collection

object label for 1977.52.2

    This mask contains characteristic features of a sowei mask: a smooth, diamond-shaped face, downcast eyes, and elaborate hairstyle. The twisted coiffure is accentuated by beaded cornrows at the end of each plait. The nose, mouth and ears are somewhat crude, however, and there are only two neck rings that stop somewhat abruptly on either side of the mask beneath the ears. The two rings of holes clearly seen around the base of the mask are where the palm fibers of the costume would have been attached to the mask.

object label for 1981.43.1

    The elaborate hairstyle of this refined mask features a woven crown around the head, three large braids running front to back over the top, and a flat, raised ridge on either side. These ridges feature a double row of cowrie shells, symbolic of brightness and wealth, along their base. At the crown is of the head is the damaged figure of a bird. Noninga ta kulo lolo is a Mende saying that means “birds see far” -- in Mende mythology, birds

    often act as intermediaries between humans and the spirit realm that can see and communicate future events. Note also the scarification indicated above and on either side of the eyes. Though scarification is common among some peoples that use the Sande masks, among others it is not. Nonetheless one sees decorative scarification on the masks of all ethnic groups, evidence of the intermingling of artistic styles.

object label for 1981.43.2

    This mask has two neck rings that widen from the front to form thick rolls parallel to the back of the head. There is scarification on the outside of the eyes as well as on the cheeks. The hairstyle features four symmetrical peaks with the hair between combed upward into a top knot at the crown. Uncharacteristic of sowei, the eyes on this mask are wide open with lashes and/or brows indicated above them. Badly damaged by insects, this mask now seems a likely candidate for use by a gonde masker.

object label for 1981.43.3

    This mask features cross-shaped scarification on either cheek and a single neck ring, though three additional rolls form additional layers of the neck behind the ears. The plaited, conical hairstyle features a top knot: white scarves are often tied to these during performance of the sowei, though the low luster of the wood and absence of signs of wear around the raffia holes may indicated that this mask was carved for sale to tourists.

object label for 1981.43.4

    The headpiece his mask features a crown of geometric patterns adorned with crescent-shaped ridges. Damage to the uppermost ridge obscures its design somewhat, though it

    appears to have been topped by a medicinal horn. The lustrous pyramid of the forehead mirrors the plaits at the back of the head and highlights the lashes of the downcast eyes.

object label for 1981.43.5

    This mask, along with 1981.43.1, is the most ornate and finely carved of the sowei masks in the Bayly’s collection. The abundant neck rolls twist to form a diamond pattern echoing the almond-shaped eyes from which fine lines emanate outward. The features are particularly delicate, as is the carefully patterned coiffure. The crown of the head was originally ornamented by two twisted horns flanking a small platform that may have contained an amulet.

    NOTE: Unfortunately, the Bayly has little or no information regarding the origins and history of these specific masks.}

Sowei out of context

     The display of African masks in an art museum generates a unique set of problems. Whereas most Western art is produced to hang on museum or gallery walls, traditional African art such as masks are ritual objects, valued for their use in a particular ritual context. To remove the object from its context is thus to obscure, if not lose, its meaning and value. The sowei mask makes limited sense behind glass, without its costume and dancer and outside the realm of its masquerade performance. In response to an art historian’s request to see the masks of a village without the costumed maskers, Chief Karkartuwa of Juawa, Kailahun replied: “Could you go out without your head?”;


    Phillips, p. 14

    caption: An exhibit of sowei masks in Canada, 1989. Photo by Ruth Phillips.

Boone, pp. 228-229

    caption: Sowei in motion. Photos by Rebecca Busselle.

Western constructions of African culture over time

     Any interpretation of culture, including that of aspects of African culture such as art, religious belief and ritual, is entrenched in the worldview of the interpreter. Phillips’ historiography of writings about the Sande society demonstrates the sexist, racist and religious biases that colored some of the earliest interpretations. These interpretations describe the Mende people as “pagans” and “heathens,” the sowei maskers as “devils.” They highlight the secret and sexual aspect of the Sande society, describing Sande practices as being dark, mysterious, and wild. Such descriptions were used, in part, to justify colonialism as a “civilizing” enterprise.

     A museum exhibition is obviously a form of cultural representation and a peculiarly Western construction. The earliest displays of African masks most likely

    occurred in natural history museums, where they were exhibited as curiosities -- “artifacts” of primitive others rather than works of art produced by civilized societies. Robert Sullivan, the current Associate Director for Public Programs at the Smithsonian’s

    National Museum of Natural History suggests that these displays offered their audiences the opportunity to experience “safe terror” -- to gaze at the savagery of the colonized

    without being subject to actual danger.

     Survey books on African art produced through the mid-twentieth century tended to ahistoricize and make gross generalizations regarding the art and style of “the Negro.” Ethnographic writings of the same period, bent on identifying the underlying structure of cultures such as the Mende, essentialized certain aspects of these cultures while making the overall culture appear static and unchanging. These interpretations also tended to privilege male experience. For example, they depicted the Sande society as superficial and unimportant (teaching women to be beautiful and obedient) as compared to Poro (which taught men how to govern and succeed economically).

     More recent work by women scholars, both ethnographers and art historians, helped correct some erroneous assumptions, but generated others by way of their feminist agendas. Boone, for example, misleads readers by suggesting that Mende women represent the most beautiful, interesting, and therefore important members of Mende society.

Conclusion: Sowei and the Sacred, the Secret and the Ephemeral

     Ultimately, one must remember that sowei embodies a spirit, a sacred entity. It is through ritual dance that the spirit becomes present and effects the powerful force of hale, the Sande medicine. The Sande society is secret in that the knowledge it possesses is too valuable to be shared with the uninitiated. The ephemeral nature of performance conveys an aspect of that knowledge that cannot be conveyed in the museum context via objects, pictures, text. In fact, it cannot be conveyed by any means of rendering permanent what is meant to be transitory. The essence of sowei, then, can never be truly captured.


    Boone, p. 103

    caption: Initiation often leads to lifelong friendships. Photo by Rebecca Busselle.

Boone, p. 227

    caption: Sowei is the embodiment of a spirit. Photo by Rebecca Busselle.

Selected Bibliography

    Bamert, Arnold. Africa: Tribal Art of Forest and Savanna. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.

    Boone, Sylvia Ardyn. Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

________. “Review of Bundu: Bush-Devils in the Land of the Mende” in African Arts.

    April, 1993.

Herold, Erich. African Art. London: Hamlyn, 1990.

    Leiris, Michel and Jacqueline Delange. African Art. Translated by Michael Ross. New York: Golden Press, 1968.

    Nooter, Mary H. Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals. New York: The Museum for African Art, 1993.

    Olderogge, Dmitry and Werner Forman. The Art of Africa: Negro Art from the Institute of Ethnography, Leningrad. London: Paul Hamlyn, 1969.

    Phillips, Ruth B. Representing Woman: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995.

    Roy, Christopher. Art and Life in Africa: Selections from the Stanley Collection. University of Iowa Museum of Art, 1985.

Schmalenbach, Werner. African Art. New York: Macmillan, 1954.

    Segy, Ladislas. Masks of Black Africa. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1976.

Siegman, William. “North and West Guinea Coast.” In African Art from the Barber-

    Mueller Collection, Werner Schmalenbach, ed. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1988.

    Wassing, Rene S. African Art: Its Background and Traditions. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1968.

; Phillips, 1995: 88

    ; Boone: 39

    ; Phillips, 1995: 155, note 9

    ; Phillips, 1995: 53

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