This serene helmet mask was made by the Mende people of Sierra Leone. It pertains to the Sande women’s initiation society, the only all-female masking society in Africa. It is a compact and very well-executed example of the genre, although highly unusual in several respects. Most masks of this sort have a domed forehead and a small face, yet combined together. The face on this example is restricted by hatched boundaries, and formed into a diamond shape; the effect gives the impression that the face has been mounted separately onto the body of the mask. The base third of the mask is formed into a series of neck rings, giving way to an elaborately hatched coiffure with horizontal banding. It has a sharp apex with a pair of handle-like eminences, deep-hatched, one arising from each side of the head. Various of these elements have specific meaning. Complex hairstyles are considered beautiful by the Mende, while the banding separating face from hair represents fecundity and attractiveness. The neck rings represent water, which is 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 a delightful example of the genre.
- (PF.5914 (LSO))