Mende: Sowo Mask
Guinea Coast, Africa
Materials: Carved wood, paint
The Sande Society is made up of female members throughout the western coast of Africa. The Mende are one of the several cultures that practice the Sande ideology. Mende groups live in the regions presently known as Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. This mask exemplifies the characteristics of “secret society” masks that are used among the Mende members.
The Mende term for this type of mask is Sowo Mask. The mask is used in Sande ceremonial and ritual activities. The Sande Society is perceived as secret because many of the actual rituals and values are not shared with outsiders. Every Mende female goes into the Sande Society. Sande influences the social, physical and emotional development of a woman during her lifetime. Members of the Sande Society promote female empowerment, beauty and personal identity as well. Female Mende members are young girls when Sande members initiate them. During the initiation rituals, elder members actually wear masks like the one pictured above. Raffia and cloth from the neck down complete the Sande dress.
The Sowo mask itself is not the symbol of Sande. The mask does, however represent ideal images of wealth, good health and status. During the initiation ceremony, it also possesses the spirit of a water deity. The mask pictured above is adorned with elaborate and tightly rolled coils of hair. The largest and most highly decorated elements of the masks are the coiffures. Some masks are embellished with birds or snakes on the hair. Many of the masks share characteristic slit eyes. The mask pictured above has a single, vertical line that lies through each eye. It may possibly symbolize cicatrization, which is common with Sowo masks.
The production of Sowo masks are often commissioned to local men. They make the masks out of wood because it is functional and durable. They are painted with black paint, shoe polish or oil. This provides a shiny appearance and keeps it cleaner. In the Sande Society, it is very important that the masks are elaborate and have aesthetic appeal. By conservative estimates, the Sande Society has been active for several hundred years! Sowo masks are unique in that the Sande Society is the only indigenous organization in Africa in which women customarily wear masks.