Helmet mask

late 19th to early 20th century
Artist Unidentified

Object Place: Sierra Leone


36.19 x 20.8 (width) x 27.3 (depth) cm (14 1/4 x 8 3/16 x 10 3/4 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Wood with black pigment and metal

On View

Richard B. Carter Gallery (Gallery 171)


Africa and Oceania



Commissioned and worn by women, although carved by men, this mask was associated with the education and socialization of young Mende and Vai females, as supervised within the Sande society. Senior women wore these masks at the termination of initiation ceremonies in order to embody their patron spirit persona of fecundity and grace, known as Sowei. The high forehead, compressed triangular face, and voluminous neck rolls, the latter of which signifies both wealth and beauty, are characteristic. Carved from light bombax wood, the mask is blackened and oiled to approximate supple skin.


Jean Fagalde, Liberia; sold by Fagalde to Michael Oliver, Inc., New York [see note 1]; sold by Michael Oliver to Bryce P. Holcombe (d. 1983), New York [see note 2]; probably acquired directly from Holcombe by Pace Primitive and Ancient Art, New York (stock no. 51-11883); April 5, 1989, sold by Pace Primitive to William and Bertha Teel, Marblehead, MA; 1992, partial gift of William and Bertha Teel to the MFA; 2014, acquired fully with the bequest of William Teel to the MFA. (Accession Dates: June 30, 1992 and February 26, 2014)

[1] Yale Van Rijn Archive of African Art, no. 0014565.

[2] Director of Pace Primitive, New York, until his death. This mask was part of his private collection.

Credit Line

Gift of William E. and Bertha L. Teel