Artwork of the Week: May 30

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Mende people, Sewa subgroup (African, Sierra Leone, Sande society), Helmet Mask: Sowei, wood and pigment with raffia fringe, late 19th–early 20th century. H. 30 in. Gallery 4

Mende people, Sewa subgroup (African, Sierra Leone, Sande society), Helmet Mask: Sowei, wood and pigment with raffia fringe, late 19th–early 20th century. H. 30 in. Gallery 4

Young women of the Mende people are traditionally initiated at puberty into Sande (SAHN-day), a society of women who are keepers of secret knowledge. A masquerade called sowei (SOH-way) is performed during an initiation ritual or celebration. Sowei is nearly the only time African dance masks are worn by women. This mask’s features express Mende (MEN-day) ideals of womanly beauty and virtue. The downcast eyes and small mouth symbolize dignity, composure, and restraint; the elaborately braided coiffure represents cosmetic skill and sexuality; the creases around the neck signify desirable plumpness and good health; and the shiny black surface imitates youthful, luminous skin and symbolizes moral purity.


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