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Helmet Mask (Sowei)

15 1/2 x 8 7/8 x 8 7/8 in. (39.4 x 22.5 x 22.5 cm)

Unknown, Mende
Sierra Leonean

Object Type: Sculpture
Medium and Support: Wood
Credit Line: Marion Stratton Gould Fund
Accession Number: 1972.52
Location: Currently on view
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The only occasion upon which it is acceptable for women to wear masks in Africa is during the ceremonies of the Sande society in Mende culture. Sande society, which includes all Mende women, wields a great deal of political and social power.

Sowei is the Sande society’s guardian spirit and as such has a forceful, aggressive dance style that is enhanced by an imposing body covering of black raffia fibers. The carved mask embodies ideal Mende womanhood: a high clear forehead (intelligence); downcast eyes (servility); small mouth (discretion); neck rings (health) and scarification (physical beauty). The elaborate hairstyle reflects the importance of social bonds between women as it takes many hands to create such a look.
[Gallery label text, 2009]

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