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Helmet Mask (sowei) (work of art)

Artwork Info

mid 20th century
Sierra Leone (Sewa and Mende)
20th century-
​​14 1/8 x 8 3/4 x 9 inches (35.9 x 22.2 x 22.9 centimeters)


Gift of the James G. Hanes Memorial Fund

Object Number

Key Ideas

  • This mask of a human face is shiny and black, with a wooden bird on the top and a metal arch nailed to the forehead. It is shaped like a half-dome, made taller by an elaborate, carved hairstyle.
  • The mask’s face is feminine, with facial features that are close together, small lips, and downcast eyes. Its ears are set wide, and its neck is carved into stacking bands.
  • The Sande are a masquerade society, or a group of masked dancers. They are one of the only masquerade societies in Africa made up of all women. Members of the Sande prepare girls for adulthood. This process is called initiation.
  • The way the mask is carved shows how beauty ideals are different in different cultures. The Mende believe that lines on women’s necks are beautiful, and they make the lines appear deeper with thread, as shown on the mask.
  • This mask is worn by the sowei, who are the highest-ranking individuals in the Sande society. The sowei are believed to be wise and able to communicate with their ancestors.

Learn More

Among the Mende and neighboring groups, the Sande society is responsible for educating girls as they become women. During coming-of-age ceremonies, masqueraders wear wooden helmet masks and raffia costumes. Though carved by men, the masks are worn and danced by female Sande society members. This is rare in Africa, where masqueraders are mostly male. The mask’s form highlights Mende ideals of feminine beauty.

tags: fashion, ceremony, movement, function, identity, interdependence, ritual, pattern, community

Additional Resources

Resources for Teachers:


Resources for Students:


  • A black mask with a human face and a tall, dome-shaped hairstyle carved into its surface.

    Helmet Mask (sowei)

  • A black mask with a human face and a tall, dome-shaped hairstyle carved into its surface.

    Helmet Mask (sowei)