Key Ideas about this Work of Art
- This wooden helmet mask, or sowei, is worn on top of the head rather than over the face. The mask is carved to represent the Sande society’s ideal feminine form: smooth skin, a long forehead, a small nose, and almond-shaped eyes.
- This type of mask is specific to the Sande society of Sierra Leone. The Sande are one of the only all-women masquerade societies in Africa.
- Sowei is the general term for Sande masqueraders.
- This mask is only one part of the full-body costume worn by Sande masqueraders.
This black helmet mask belonged to the woman’s initiation society known as Sande. The sowei are the highest-ranking individuals in the Sande society. They are believed to be wise and able to communicate with their ancestors. The Sande society’s masquerades are performed by women only. The performers who wear helmet masks are known as ndoli jowei, or “the dancing sowei.” These dancers perform at births, funerals, and various rite-of-passage ceremonies. The helmet mask is only one part of their elaborate, full-body costumes.
The ndoli jowei masquerade represents female power. For the women of Sierra Leone, the masquerade is even more important than the mask itself. Each mask is given a name associated with the performer’s skilled dance steps. The collectors of this mask recorded its name (“Navoh”) when it was gifted to them in 1973.
Resources for Teachers:
- Read a Khan Academy article about a Sande helmet mask.
- Read a short article about African masks.
- Read a journal article about women’s masquerades in Africa and the African Diaspora.
Resources for Students: