One of the most prominent and intriguing works of art that came out West Africa were the wooden Sowei helmet masks. These masks were beautiful and compelling merely as works of art but they also had important cultural, ritualistic and historic significance. The Sowei masks were only worn by the most important and senior female tribe members during the initiation ceremony of young girls into adulthood. These masks were an essential and central part of the ceremony and it is believed that the “magic” of the ceremony resided in these masks.
The specific and fine details of each mask may have varied in some degree dependent on the carving style and location, but they each portrayed the same essential image, an “ideal” feminine beauty. All of the Sowei masks were carved in secret and were done with great care and detail. Generally each mask displayed an elaborate and detailed hairstyle, with a full wide forehead and diminutive facial features. You will also notice on this mask the large rolls of what appears to be flesh, carved on the back of neck and the head.
These rolls of flesh were considered not only attractive but signs of fertility. Though not visible, the neck and or opening of the masks were cut large and wide so that they would fit easily over the woman’s head and hair. Here on this specific Sowei mask, you can see the intricate geometric patterns and designs that were cut into the side of the helmet to represent the elaborate hairstyles worn by the women wearing the masks. The hair in many instances was further adorned with carvings of cowrie shells, diamond shaped amulets, figures and birds.
The small openings that were carved for the eyes were made to look as though the wearer of the mask was looking downward, intended to appear peaceful and in control. The carving of the mouth reinforced this idealization of calmness and appeared opened and relaxed. Another noticeable feature of this particular Sowei mask is the smoothness. It is evident that the entire surface of the mask has been sanded to smooth flawless perfection. This process was completed by the use of ficus tree leaves. The male carvers boiled a mixture of leaves to create a deep dark polish.
After the leave mixture had cooled it was rubbed into the wood creating a dark brown or dark black complexion. The masks were then polished to a high shiny gloss with palm oil. This black-brown leaf mixture also protected the masks from insects. A series of small holes were carved out along the entire base of the mask. Though not evident in this particular mask, rafia (palm leaves) strands were dyed black and were laced and tied through the holes this in turn added another dimension of texture and beauty to the masks.
In addition to the rafia strands a long black dress/shirt was attached to mask that covered all or most of the body. The sleeves of the shirt/dress were sewed shut and long stockings that covered their feet and/or shoes were also worn as it was imperative that no portion of the women’s bodies were exposed. Traditionally only African men were permitted to wear masks during important life ceremonies. Though this was not true for the black Sowei masks, which were only worn by women. The masks were thought to add a “festive” air to the maturation ceremonies of the young girls into womanhood.
During these initiation ceremonies girls were taken into the forest to learn the “secret knowledge” of women. While the young girls were sequestered during their initiation ceremonies the elder tribes women came our dressed in their masks and announced the completion of certain phases of the ceremony. The masked elder women also appeared and asked for food and offerings during the ceremonies. At the end of the initiation ceremony a masked elder woman would escort each girl, now a marriageable woman back to the tribe.
While the Sowei masks were used predominately for the initiation ceremony there were also other occasions where the might have been used. The mask may have been used in legal disputes and funerals. It is believed that the “spirit” of the masks spoke through dance. The Sowei mask “channeled” the spirits of past female ancestors and embodied the persona of ngafa a strong mystical power or spirit. The spirit of the mask took the qualities of the ordinary woman, exaggerated and dramatized them into an idealized sense of female beauty, calm, serenity and order.
The masks combined with the dance allowed these elder women to display to their entire village the essential qualities of female beauty, virtue and wisdom. The spirit spoke not through words but through the language of dance, referring to moral and social doctrines of beauty, serenity, dignity, control, order, and balance. Dance movements exaggerate the powers of ordinary women and dramatized the ideals of feminine beauty. It was extremely important that no part of their bodies were exposed during the dance as it was feared that the spirit of the mask would enter the human body rather then reside in the mask.
The masks were also reflections of other aspects of tribal life. The rings or rolls of flesh carved around the neck and base of the mask were thought to represent water and the rising female spirit. The rings also represented, fat, fertility and maturity. The use of the color was not random either. The glowing dark brown, black color represented not only the beautiful complexion of the women of the tribe but also the rich fertile soil of the muddy riverbanks and bottom. The elaborate carvings within the hair of the Sowei mask were not with out meaning either.
The shells were thought to represent personal wealth and great social status. The amulets and animal horns were considered to be protective measures and birds have always been traditionally linked with messages from the afterworld. It is very clear that every aspect of these masks, from the wood they were carved from, to their color and intricate carvings have great historic, spiritual and aesthetic value. Each mask told a story not only about the individual wearer but their tribe, traditions and families.
“Art Through Time: A Global View – Mask (sowei). Learner. org. Web. 27 Feb. 2011. . “Mende Helmet Mask – RAND AFRICAN ART. ” RAND AFRICAN ART Home Page. Web. 02 Mar. 2011. . Phillips, Ruth B. Representing Woman: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995. Print. Phillips, Ruth B. “Masking in Mende Sande Society Initiation Rituals. ” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 48. 3 (1978): 265-77. Print. Sieber, Roy, Frank Herreman, and Niangi Batulukisi. Hair in African Art and Culture. New York: Museum for African Art, 2000. Print.