Helmet mask (sowei)


Manowulo ( Sierra Leonese, 1935 - 1960 )

Mende peoples
c. 1940–1960
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General Description

The women's Sande, or Bundu, society, which is found in Liberia and Sierra Leone, traditionally initiated girls into womanhood by preparing them for marriage, family life, and participation in the women's sphere of community life. When they were deemed to be ready, the high-ranking teacher and society leader introduced them to the community as adult women. On this occasion, each leader wore a voluminous raffia fiber costume and a wooden helmet mask that embodied sowei, the water spirit and guardian deity of the Sande society. In most societies, only men are entitled to carve or wear masks. The exception is the Sande helmet mask: although carved by men, it is worn exclusively by women. This mask is attributed to Manowulo, a Mende sculptor who was active from about 1935 until 1960 in the Baoma chiefdom located north of Jaiama-Bangor near the town of Bo.

The mask represents female perfection and power and personifies women's interests. Beneath the elaborate hairstyle typical of what Mende women wore during the mid-20th century and high forehead are downcast eyes, which are not only a sign of modesty but also the nonhuman essence of the spirit that inhabits the mask. The rings around the neck are an exaggerated representation of the natural increase in body fat that occurs in adolescence, in preparation for childbearing. The mouth is closed or slightly open to signify silence and inner spiritual concentration. The lustrous black pigment or paint staining the mask is a reference to the river-dwelling spirit that inhabits the mask. Black, in the Mende language, means "wet" or "wetness."

Animal horns and an amulet carved in relief adorn this mask. Some masks display these objects as attachments that may be covered with gold or silver. Such horns in real life were stuffed with protective medicines. A long time ago, wealthy Mende women also wore pendant necklaces with silver-encased amulets containing Islamic inscriptions. The amulets were made by Muslim mori, or holy men, and expensive to obtain. Their attachment to or depiction on Sande society masks protected the dancer from malevolent forces while she performed. It was also an unmistakable sign of wealth.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Arts of Africa, 2015.
  • Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 130-133.

Web Resources

Mt Holyoke College
Learn more about the Sande Society.