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 Africa, Sierra Leone
 Chuck Close
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Inner Worlds What is Art?  Environment  Designing Spaces and Places
Africa, Sierra Leone
Africa, Sierra Leone, Sande Society MaskClick to larger image
Africa, Sierra Leone
Sande Society Mask, 20th century
wood, raffia
H. 13 in.
About the Art

This mask from the Sande Society in Sierra Leone was worn by a mature woman as part of an initiation ceremony for young girls entering adulthood. The mask represents the ideal of womanhood and feminine beauty among Mende women.

The country of Sierra Leone is located on the west coast of Africa, just north of Liberia.

Map of Africa
Map of Africa
[Click on image for larger version]
The population of well over one million people is made up of many different cultures, the largest of which (about 900,000) is the Mende (MEN-day) people. The Mende live in a hilly, fertile area, and most are rice farmers.

In many African societies masked dancers perform on special occasions, but the dancers are nearly always men. Among the Mende people, however, women also dance in masks. Nearly every Mende woman and man belongs to a secret association: the Sande (SAN-day) Society for women, and the Poro (POR-o) Society for men. When girls and boys reach their teens they go through special training to join these organizations. Women teach the girls dancing and singing, domestic skills, child care, grooming, and etiquette, in addition to religious knowledge. This mask was used in a traditional initiation ceremony into the secret Sande Society.

This mask represents an ideal woman. The delicate facial features are examples of inner beauty as much as outer beauty. The smooth high forehead indicates wisdom and success. The hair is carved to show an intricate style of braiding and banding. The lines around the eyes and mouth represent scarification marks, formed by cutting into the skin. Mende girls undergo scarification as a part of initiation. Special designs identify the woman and her link to society.

To fully appreciate the Sande Society mask, we would have to see it in the context of the ceremony for which it was intended. Now still and silent, this wooden mask once embodied a powerful spirit called sowei (SO-way). Imagine the awesome appearance of this beautiful black mask worn by a woman with raffia swirling about her as she moved. The sowei spirit escorts the girls into initiation, provides guidance while they are in training, and emerges with them as they celebrage adulthood.

Sande Mask
Sande Society mask in use

The rings on the neck represent another aspect of feminine beauty. The neighboring Temne people associate the sowei spirit with the chrysalis of the butterfly and so may the Mende. It is possible that the rings on the mask symbolize the female's emergence from childhood to adulthood just as the rings on the chrysalis mark the transformation of the pupa to the mature butterfly. Most likely, the bird on the crown of the mask is a hen. referring to motherhood and its responsibilities.

A woman must be of a certain rank to commission a mask from a carver. The carver is a man in the community possessing special knowledge of spiritual and social concerns. She tells him the name of the spirit that the mask will represent, and he "dreams" the appropriate form. The resulting mask can be worn only by this woman, and only she can call forth the spirit.

The Sande Society remains a vital part of Mende life today, but society members do not discuss their beliefs and practices with outsiders.

Vocabulary Terms

chrysalis--The casing, or pupa, of an undeveloped butterfly.

Poro Society--The secret association for men in Mende society.

Sande Society--The secret association for women in Mende society.

scarification--Permanent patterned marks made by small scratches or cuts on the skin. In many parts of Africa these scars are marks of beauty and a way to identify someone belonging to a particular group.

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