Audio Guide Essay #1
Intro to African Arts
Mende Sowei Helmet Mask
Type of Object: Helmet mask
Ethnic Group: Mende
Country of Origin: Sierra Leone, Liberia
Materials: wood, pigment
Approximate Age: mid 20th century
Dimensions: 19 inches H. x 14 x 19.5 inches W.
One of the most prominent and intriguing works of art that came out West Africa were the wooden Sowei helmet masks. These masks were beautiful and compelling merely as works of art but they also had important cultural, ritualistic and historic significance. The Sowei masks were only worn by the most important and senior female tribe members during the initiation ceremony of young girls into adulthood. These masks were an essential…show more content… While the young girls were sequestered during their initiation ceremonies the elder tribes women came our dressed in their masks and announced the completion of certain phases of the ceremony. The masked elder women also appeared and asked for food and offerings during the ceremonies. At the end of the initiation ceremony a masked elder woman would escort each girl, now a marriageable woman back to the tribe. While the Sowei masks were used predominately for the initiation ceremony there were also other occasions where the might have been used. The mask may have been used in legal disputes and funerals.
It is believed that the “spirit” of the masks spoke through dance. The Sowei mask “channeled” the spirits of past female ancestors and embodied the persona of ngafa a strong mystical power or spirit. The spirit of the mask took the qualities of the ordinary woman, exaggerated and dramatized them into an idealized sense of female beauty, calm, serenity and order. The masks combined with the dance allowed these elder women to display to their entire village the essential qualities of female beauty, virtue and wisdom.
The spirit spoke 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 dramatized the ideals of feminine beauty. It was extremely