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Image of Sande Society Sowei Helmet Mask

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unknown Mende
Mende (active ) Primary

Sande Society Sowei Helmet Mask

Mid 20th century
Carved wood

15 9/16 in. x 8 11/16 in. (diameter) (39.5 cm x 22 cm)

Bryn Mawr College
Accession Number: 99.3.25
Other Number(s): 170 (8) (Neufeld Collection Number)
Geography: Africa, Sierra Leone
Classification: Ceremonial and Performance Artifacts; Masks
Culture/Nationality: Mende, Sierra Leonean, West African, African
Collection: Neufeld Collection
Description: When young girls in parts of the West Atlantic region reach a certain age they are initiated into the Sande women’s society, whose purpose is to teach girls the roles of proper women within their communities. Once the training is complete, the girls are then considered women and are brought back into the community to be celebrated. A leader of the women’s society, known as a ndoli jowei, dances in masquerade with this type of helmet mask.

Sande Society helmet masks symbolize an ideal of beauty with their high foreheads, elaborate braided hairstyles, and healthy black complexions. According to oral tradition, the Sande spirit is a water spirit; therefore it is believed that the rings on the neck of the mask symbolize the rippling of water. Among the Temne, the rings of the mask are viewed as the outer shell of a moth undergoing metamorphosis, which represents the girl’s transformation into a mature woman.

Keywords Click a term to view the records with the same keyword
This object has the following keywords:
  • African - Refers to the cultures of the continent of Africa, which is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea.
  • braids - Patterns created by intertwining three or more strands of material into a plait. This is often achieved with human hair or used as the basis of a hairstyle.
  • carvings - Refers to works executed by cutting a figure or design out of a solid material such as stone or wood. It typically refers to works that are relatively small in size, are part of a larger work, or are not considered art. For large and medium-sized three-dimensional works of art, use the broader term "sculpture" or another appropriate term.
  • ceremonial masks - Refers to masks created for or used in ceremonies or rituals.
  • helmet masks - Masks that enclose the head entirely or in part, especially those worn during African ceremonies and masquerades.
  • initiations - Ceremonies formally admitting someone into a community, organization, or other group, or investing them with a particular role or status.
  • masks - Refers to coverings for all or part of the face, usually with openings for the eyes and sometimes the mouth. They are worn to hide or alter the identity of the wearer or for protection. Masks as cultural objects have been used throughout the world in all periods since the Stone Age. Masks are extremely varied in appearance, function, and fundamental meaning. They may be associated with ceremonies that have religious and social significance or are concerned with funerary customs, fertility rites, or curing sickness. They may be used on festive occasions or to portray characters in a dramatic performance and in re-enactments of mythological events. They may be used for warfare and as protective devices in certain sports. They are also employed as architectural ornaments.
  • Mende
  • rites of passage - Ritual ceremonies performed to facilitate or mark a person's change of status upon any of several important social and personal occasions, such as the onset of puberty.
  • ritual objects - Objects used for a particular ritual activity, often as part of a ceremony.
  • secret societies - Any of various societies, the members of which are sworn to keep the rules, activities, and purposes secret from nonmembers.
  • Sierra Leonean - Style and culture of the nation of Sierra Leone.
  • West African - Styles and cultures from the region comprising the westernmost area of the African continent, defined by the United Nations as including the modern nations of Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo.
  • women - Refers to female human beings from young adulthood through old age.
  • wood - The principal tissue of trees and other plants that provides both strength and a means of conducting nutrients. Wood is one of the most versatile materials known.

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Exhibition List
This object was included in the following exhibitions:
  • Mende Sande Society Helmets from the Helen and Mace Neufeld Collection of African Art Bryn Mawr College , Feb 8, 1999 – Mar 8, 1999

  • Owner Name: Mace Neufeld and Helen Katz Neufeld, Class of 1953
    Role: Donor
    Place: Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, US
    Ownership End Date: 12/20/1996

Bibliography List
The following Bibliography exist for this object:
  • "African Heritage Document and Research Center." (Accessed June 11, 2020): Record No.: 0177761.

Comparanda List
The following Comparanda exist for this object:
  • Vittorio Carini and Luciano Martinis. Les masques Bundu (Udine, Italy: Gaspari editore, 2017), 51. Figure Number: 73
  • Gavin H. Imperato and Pascal James Imperato. Bundu: Sowei Headpieces of the Sande Society of West Africa (New York, New York: Kilima House Publishers, 2012), 113. Figure Number: 3

Related Bibliography List
The following Related Bibliography exist for this object:
  • "ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA." (Accessed May 10, 2020):
  • "Art and Life in Africa: Peoples." (Accessed May 11, 2020):
  • Ruth B. Phillips, "Masking in Mende Sande Society Initiation Rituals." Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 48, no. 3 (1978): 265-277.
  • J. V. Olufemi Richards, "The Sande Mask." African Arts 7, no. 2 (Winter 1974): 48-51.
  • Frederick Lamp, "Cosmos, Cosmetics, and the Spirit of Bondo." African Arts 18, no. 3 (May 1985): 28-43, 98-99.
  • Syvlia Ardyn Boone, Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 153-161.

Portfolio List Click a portfolio name to view all the objects in that portfolio
This object is a member of the following portfolios:

If you would like to cite this object in a Wikipedia article please use the following template:

<ref name=BMC>cite web |url= |title=Sande Society Sowei Helmet Mask |author=Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections |accessdate=3/25/2023 |publisher=Bryn Mawr College</ref>

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