In many African societies, masked dancers perform on special occasions, but the dancers are nearly always men. The Mende people, however, are one of the notable exceptions where women don masks. Nearly every member of the Mende tribe belongs to a secret association: the Sande society for women, and the Poro society for men. When girls and boys reach their teens they go through special training to join these organizations, learning all they will need to know to become full adult members of society. Women teach the girls dancing and singing, domestic skills, childcare, grooming, and etiquette, in addition to religious knowledge. This mask was used in a traditional initiation ceremony into the secret Sande society.
This mask represents everything an adult Mende woman should be: wise, serene, and elegant. The mask was not intended to be a portrait of a specific person; rather, it represents an ideal woman. The delicate facial features of the mask, the modestly downcast eyes, and the discreetly closed mouth, are examples of inner beauty as much as outer beauty. The smooth high forehead indicates wisdom and success. In Mende thought, a woman's future may be told by her forehead. Because elaborate hairstyles are desirable among adult Mende women, the hair is carved to show an intricate style of braiding and banding. The hair is carefully arranged in orderly patterns, reflecting the balance and harmony of an ideal household.
To fully appreciate the Sande Society mask, we would have to see it in the context of the ceremony for which it was intended. Now still and silent, this wooden mask once embodied a powerful spirit called sowei. Imagine the awesome appearance of this beautiful mask worn by a woman with raffia swirling about her as she moved. The mask itself is an embodiment of the sowei spirit, not simply decoration that conceals the dancer. In evoking the spirit, the masked woman gives up her own identity to allow the spirit to take over. The sowei spirit is present to escort the girls into initiation, to provide guidance while they are in training, and to emerge with them in festive celebration of their readiness for adulthood and marriage.