mende sowei mask
country: sierra leone
material: wood, resinous patina.
age: early 20th century
size: 14.75" (37.5 cm)
provenance: 24 collection - florida, usa
This mask has the classic small facial features and elaborately ornate coiffure that is archetypal of the “Sowei”, a mask of the Sande Society. Sande masks represent the epitome of female beauty. Sande and Poro societies play a major social role in the local community life of many villages. They teach young men and women the domestic skills and knowledge they will need as married adults. Poro is the secret society for men, responsible for initiating boys into manhood, while its counterpart, Sande, initiates girls into womanhood. Masked performers, commonly referred to as zogbe or sowei, play a central role in Sande ritual activities. The costumed masker embodies the spirit of Sande, representing the society's principles and ideals.
The small face, slit eyes and diminutive nose and mouth set on a ringed neck that depicts affluence are all classic features of idealized beauty in the Mende society. The hierarchically ordered Sande like its male complement, the Poro Society, has for centuries been one of the central social institutions of Sierra Leone, in some areas of Guinea and in some areas of Liberia. Sande masks always bear feminine features even when they embody masculine ancestral spirits, as they do among some groups like the Gola and the Vai.