Kresge Art Museum
African Art: Western Eyes

Sowei mask, women's helmet mask

Vai people, Liberia
Vai people, Liberia
Wood, pigment
Loan courtesy of the MSU Museum, 7372.6
This helmet mask is part of a larger masquerading ensemble worn by a woman leader during important ceremonies organized by members of the Sande Society (called Bondo among Vai peoples in Liberia). Sande is a women's organization active in many parts of Liberia and Sierra Leone, which is concerned with women's issues and responsibilities at the local level. Sande has been an important social and political institution since at least the seventeenth century, when it was first recorded by Western ethnographers. While the role of Sande has changed over time, the education of young girls remains a key responsibility of its leaders. In theory all women belong to Sande and its formal role in women's lives begins at puberty when girls must undergo a rigorous training period that marks their transformation from child to adult.

The Sande masquerade is primarily performed during this training period and highlights the solemn magnitude of this time for the young women. It also appears to honor important political dignitaries and pays homage to Sande leaders at their funerals. When the masquerade appears, it is regarded as a personification of Sande power, both on the political and religious level. The mask bears the name sowei, which refers to the title given to the highest-ranking leaders of Sande. The mask is also seen as the embodiment of Sande's spiritual and healing forces. The lustrous blackness, beautifully arranged hair, downcast eyes, and closed mouth give the mask an air of inner spiritual concentration and refined physical perfection-ideals that members of Sande strive for. The bird on the crown of the head, a symbol of communication, is perched upon a snake, a creature at home in the watery depths of lakes that are seen as the realm of Sande's patron spirit, Ngafa. Together they can be read as a metaphor for the ability of Sande to mediate between the spirit and secular world.