Mende, Sierra Leone / Helmet Mask (Sowo) / 20th centuryMende, Sierra Leone
Helmet Mask (Sowo)
20th century

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Creator Nationality: African
Creator Name-CRT: Mende, Sierra Leone
Title: Helmet Mask (Sowo)
View: Side View
Creation Start Date: 1900
Creation End Date: 1975
Creation Date: 20th century
Creation Place: Sierra Leone, Africa
Object Type: Costume and Jewelry
Classification Term: Masks
Materials and Techniques: Wood, pigment
Dimensions: Height: 13 5/8"; width: 8 7/8"
Description: Light wood helmet mask covered with black pigment; stylized, diamond-shape female face with features compressed in lower portion below high, rounded forehead; very small, closed slit mouth, oval eyes with viewing slits, and small straight nose; small, flat, semi-circular ears at center sides; three thick neck rings around back of head from ear to ear; elaborate coiffure of high central crest between pairs of lower crests; side coiffure carved in front to back rows of square and rectangular plaiting above rows of cowrie shells; rows of plaiting across back of head; holes around bottom edge for costume attachment; hole in center of top crest may have held added ornamentation.
AMICA Contributor: Brooklyn Children's Museum
Owner Location: Brooklyn, New York, USA
ID Number: 75.36.31
Credit Line: Gift of Dr. Herbert S. Zim, 1975
Context: Two Mende secret societies regulate each community or village: Poro for men, Sande for women. The Sowo mask is worn by women of the secret Sande Society during and after the initiation rites when girls are introduced to womanhood. Sowo is a dancing spirit from the water comprised of an all black helmet and full-length fiber robe. The masks also perform at lesser civic and social functions. All Mende women must belong to Sande in order to function in Mende society. It is a regulatory group that guards and transmits feminine ideals and responsibilities while girls are secluded in the Bundu, the initiation house in the bush. There the girls are circumcised, taught ideals of beauty (a fundamental Mende concern), domestic skills, marriage responsibilities, medicine, history, and dancing. Sowo influences every aspect of a woman's life. Sowei are high ranking Sande leaders esteemed in the community as healers, judges, priestesses, and educators. Other women are Sowololimo, expert dancers who teach and perform.

Sowo masks are usually of bombax wood patinated with shiny black paint, shoe polish or oil. The masks are also worn by the Temne, Vai, Gala and other peoples in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

AMICA ID: BCM_.75.36.31
AMICA Library Year: 2003
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