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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Mende : Sande Society Mende Helmet Mask
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Sande Society Mende Helmet Mask - DE.004 (LSO)
Origin: Sierra Leone
Circa: 19 th Century AD to 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 16.5" (41.9cm) high
Collection: African Art
Medium: Wood, Pigments
Condition: Extra Fine

Additional Information: Some surface termite damage. (AF1)
Location: United States
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This dynamic 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 displays both typical and unusual characteristics. The former includes the high, domed forehead, the small, cut-away face, the sharp chin, the pierced base and the ornate hair. Unusual characters include the frontal crest on the forehead, the very wide bands separating the face from the coiffure, the flat top giving rise to the ornate superstructure, the polychrome decorated face and the extremely columnar form. The absence of multiple neck-rings is unusual, and there is a single, dorsal ring around the back of the neck. The rendering is much more vigorous and bold than is usual for these pieces, and the use of pigment is not usual: they are usually either unadorned, or are encrusted with magical materials known as “halei” (see below). Various of the structural elements have specific meaning. Complex hairstyles are considered beautiful by the Mende, while 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 prolonged “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.

Exceptionally, Sande masks – once they reach a certain age or eroded condition – can be reinvented as Gonde, the counterpart to Sande in the ceremonial dances noted above. Sande is always viewed as being mature, sedate and serene, while Gonde is something of a roué – irascible, irreverent and cheeky. He is thus much loved in the masquerade. The masks, in addition to being somewhat eroded, are often decorated with pigment in a manner that contrasts strongly with the more monochrome appearance of the Sande masks.

Gonde masks are uncommon; this is a rare and beautiful piece of socially important African art.

- (DE.004 (LSO))


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