NARRATOR: This mask is different from every other mask in this gallery… because it would have been worn and performed by a woman. Female masking performances are rare in Africa. The Sowei mask plays an important role in the all-female Sande Society. This society is a lifelong network of women among the Vai, Mende and neighboring peoples in present-day Sierra Leone.
The mask was made to be worn over the performer’s head and face. Its features indicate the ideals of feminine propriety and beauty held by the Vai and Mende peoples. The large lobes on the top of the head refer to an elaborate hairstyle of the early part of the twentieth century.
Look at your screen to see another example of a Sowei mask, also owned by the MFA. Notice the different hairstyle, with thick braids piled high.
In this one, thinner braids project from the head. Women of the Sande society commission these masks from male carvers. The masks are brought out and performed at different points throughout the year to mark special occasions, including the ceremony marking young girls’ initiation into adulthood. The encapsulation of perfect beauty in the mask is part of what gives it its ritual power.
Choose the “Looking Closer” feature and Christraud Geary, the MFA’s first curator of African Art, will point out the various details and how they communicate ideas of gender, beauty, and power.