Sub-Saharan African Art:
Sowo Mask Sierra Leone, Mende. Late 19th - early 20th centuries A.D. Wood, raffia, copper alloy. 25 x 7 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. (63.5 x 19 x 22 cm). 1994.4.797 This black polished helmet mask combined with black raffia and adorned with a British West African coin is a particularly fine example of the Sowo initiation mask used by the women's fellowship known as Sande in Sierra Leone. Worn on the head by the highest members of Sande, the masks are paraded during a young girl's initiation period in which she is isolated and instructed in responsible womanhood. The sowei, who is the leader of Sande, is spiritually present in the Sowo mask. During the coming-of-age ceremony, young Sande women are often referred to as the brides of a male water spirit possessing the mask.
Sowo's beauty and grace are the idealized Mende woman realized. Typical of the Sowo carving tradition, a ringed neck supports a large domed head with an elaborate coiffure in the shape of a British monarch's crown, and small facial features are reserved for the lower third of the mask. In this example, strands of cowries are carved into the coiffure. Cowrie shells, used among the Mende as secular and sacred decoration and strung around the headdresses of the Sande dancers, have been used throughout Africa as a form of currency. Here the shell motif echoes the coin below as adornments that denote the high status of the wearer. Appropriation of these commercial items for the production of this art object demonstrates the creativity and ingenuity of the Mende.
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