BRIEF DESCRIPTIONMende members of the female Sande society used this mask to represent religious, personal, and social values during a masquerade.WHERE WAS IT MADE?This helmet mask was made in Sierra Leone, in West Africa.HOW WAS IT MADE?Male Mende carvers typically carve the sowo masks out of a soft wood or bombax wood. The completed sculpted mask is rubbed and polished frequently with palm oil in order to maintain a smooth and reflective surface that is highly valued for its beauty. Sculptors apply several layers of vegetable dye, called njekoi, to the surface to give it a shimmering black hue. Sowo masks are designed to be as lightweight as possible; heavy masks signal incompetence. HOW WAS IT USED?The sowo mask is performed during Sande masquerades. All of the masks in the masquerade are danced by women. This is unique; masquerades in Africa are usually performed exclusively by men.The Sande Society is an age-grade society of women whose purpose is to teach young girls cultural traditions, codes of social conduct, and roles within the community. According to myth, over 200 years ago a woman named Sande Jo dreamed of the necessity of such an organization. All Mende females are expected to join. Initiation begins at puberty or earlier and can continue for several years. The principal function of the Sande masquerade is to visually represent and exemplify religious, personal and social values important to daily life. Such values include but are not limited to modesty, diligence and respect, as well as beauty, elegance, sumptuousness and seriousness. Middle- and upper-class Sande women commission masks, called sowei or sowo, and dance them four or five times a year. Each mask represents a unique water spirit that only the dancer, called Sowei, is able to evoke. The complete costume consists of black clothes beneath a full-body covering of blackened palm fiber with hidden amulets and charms to enhance the dancer’s powers. WHY DOES IT LOOK LIKE THIS?Look closely at the features of the mask. The mouth of a sowo mask is small, and difficult to even see on this mask; the solemn and pursed mouth alludes to the value of silence, speaking appropriately, and keeping one’s composure. ??Similarly, the diminutive nose alludes to the Mende understanding of the sense of smell as the most base (and therefore least valued) of the senses – it connects humans to animals.Hearing and sight are the most valued senses. Ears facilitate learning and are believed to function both before birth and after death. Sande masks feature closed ears because it is said that this will keep out any sentiments of ill will and prevent persuasion. ??Look at the eyes, the “seed of the head;” they are downcast to signify modesty, serenity, contemplation, and femininity. Not surprisingly, they also convey a sense of allure. Scarification alongside the eyes emphasizes this facial feature.A large, smooth forehead represents beauty, nobility, sensitivity, and purity. The rings of flesh at the neck indicate wealth and vitality; being well fed is considered sexually attractive to men. A sign of God-given beauty and luck, they are exaggerated on the masks to denote the divinity of the water spirits. Finally, the rings recall the waves that result from the heads of Sowo, or water spirits, which break the water’s surface. Neck rings remind members that the Sande spirits emerged from the water.Although white is the color of the Sande society, deep black skin is considered rare and alluring. The color of deep water, the black mask visually links the masquerade to the Sowo creation myth.The coiffure indicates that the wearer was likely a member of the ligba, a middle-level woman in the Sande society. Arranged to resemble horns, perhaps of a sheep, bull or antelope, horns are thought to hold the life force of an animal. Because horns enable an animal to defend itself, they are believed to hold protective powers for the masker. A small Sande woman embellishes the top of the hair. Further back a bird also decorates the head. The bird is commonly incorporated into Sande mask designs and represents communication between the human and the spirit world, indicating clairvoyance.To see other sowo masks in the Johnson Museum’s collection, search for object numbers 82.114.012 and 93.042.001 in the keyword search box.Natalie Koscal ’09 conducted research for this description.