Beauty Secrets: A Sowo Mask
This wooden mask is associated with a secret women's society which exists in parts of West Africa. It would have been worn, with a black raffia costume, at important civic events such as the visit of an important dignitary or the coronation or funeral of an important chief. It is particularly associated with girls' initiation ceremonies and is unique in Africa in being owned and worn, if not made, by women.
Sande is a women's society found in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. It is traditionally responsible for initiating girls into adulthood and more generally champions women's social and political interests. Men have a similar society called Poro. In the past, female initiates were taken into a specially-cleared area of forest outside the town or village where they would spend several weeks or months being tutored in domestic skills, farming, sexual matters, dancing and medicine by female elders. They would also be tutored in the secrets of the women's society and taught its songs and dances. When they later emerged, in fresh clothing and with new names signifying their new adult status, the young women would be accompanied by the masked dancer.
The mask and costume are called Sowo after the supernatural entity which represents Sande society. The carved helmet mask is symbolic and its style distinctive. The female spirit depicted by the mask has small, delicate features, a wide expanse of forehead and elaborate hairstyle. These reflect popular Sande attributes. The downcast eyes and closed mouth, for example, represent modesty and aloofness, considered desirable female traits amongst the Sande. The spirit's neck is marked with rings. Some researchers have seen these as rolls of flesh - and thus evidence of the spirit's health and beauty - but others have suggested that the rolls echo the form of the chrysalis of certain butterflies. In this way, the transformation of caterpillar into butterfly, girl into woman is suggested. The neck rings are also interpreted by some Sande members as the ripples of water that radiate from the mask when it appears from the water, for the spirit is believed to appear to humans from bodies of water. In this mask, the rings also represent the coiled bodies of two snakes, both of which have caught a lizard in their mouth.
The elaborate decoration on the top of this mask suggests that it was made for a specialist dancer at a middle level rather than being the sacred, classical form used only by senior members of Sande society. The classical form has only a neat braided hairstyle and is less commonly found in museum collections, probably because of its importance to the Sande. The hairstyle of the middle level mask bears some resemblance to the way Sande women wear their hair but the mask's style is always grander and more elaborate. In this example, the braided hair is topped by five semi-circular crests on top of which sits a tiered box-like shape. A fish is attached to each outer face of the box, all swimming in the same direction. The fish recall the water home of the Sande spirit which the mask represents.
Sande masks are usually made of lightweight bombax wood. The thickness of the wood is important as the mask needs to be comfortable to wear. Traditionally, the wood was smoothed down with the rough leaves of the ficus tree before being dyed black. A rich glossy surface is achieved by rubbing the mask with palm oil or shoe polish. The costume worn with the mask is made of layers of raffia fibres that have also been dyed black. These are attached to the lower portion of the neck as well as to a black cloth shirt or gown worn over the body. The sleeves are sewn shut, and long stockings or men's shoes are worn. No part of the body is left exposed for revealing the body would expose the human beneath and would also allow the spirit to enter the human dancer rather than the mask.
This mask is unusual in being a rare African object within the Victoria and Albert Museum's collections. It originally formed part of a larger gift of Asian sculpture and furniture. While it was noted at the time of acquisition that it fell outside the collecting remit of the Museum, the mask was taken for the Museum's Circulation department. This department, which provided loan exhibitions to museums and colleges all over Britain, was disbanded in 1978 and its collections absorbed into the Museum's permanent collections, in this case that of the Sculpture department.
Boone, Sylvia Ardyn. Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986. National Art Library pressmark: 111.P.8
Phillips, Ruth B. Representing Woman: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995.
Poynor, Robin. African Art at the Harn Museum: Spirit Eyes, Human Hands. Gainesville: University of Florida, 1995, 185-191.