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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Sande Society Mende Helmet Mask
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Sande Society Mende Helmet Mask - PF.5170 (LSO)
Origin: Southern Sierra Leone
Circa: 20th th Century AD
Dimensions: 13.25" (33.7cm) high x 8" (20.3cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Wood


Location: Great Britain
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Description
This impressive helmet mask was made by the Mende people of Sierra Leone. It pertains to the Sande women’s initiation society, which is the only all-female masking society in Africa. It is a superb example of the genre, with a small face under a protuberant forehead, a pointed chin and a thick neck decorated with a series of rings. There is a series of bored holes around the perimeter of the mask. The eyes are deeply hooded, and the lips and nose have been carved with exquisite skill and care. The hair is rendered as a tall eminence made up of numerous narrow anteroposteriorly-oriented herringbone braids gathered together with a thong in the rear; complex hairstyles are considered beautiful by the Mende. The edge of the coiffure is marked with a band of incised marks which represent fecundity and attractiveness. The neck rings represent water, the home of the “Now” spirit (see below).

While currently being marginalized by pressure from Islamic conventions concerning the figurative in art, Mende society was originally controlled by the Sande group. They were charged with responsibility for a sacred medicine known as halei, which was bestowed by deities upon the Mende and their close neighbours, the Gola. The power of halei was displayed during “Now” dancing masquerades, which were performed using these masks and long, dark costumes, although the actual secrets of halei were never divulged. There were various levels of Sande initiation, each with its own mask. The more ornate the mask, the higher the grade. Once made and endowed with magic through strategic application of oil and halei materials, the mask stays with the owner until she retires, dies, or is promoted.

These masks are rare and beautiful pieces of socially important African art, and this is an exceptional, high-ranking example.

- (PF.5170 (LSO))

 

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