Sowei Helmet Masks Essay
Audio Guide Essay #1
Intro to African Arts
Mende Sowei Helmet Mask
Type of Object: Helmet mask
Ethnic Group: Mende
Country of Origin: Sierra Leone, Liberia
Materials: wood, pigment
Approximate Age: mid 20th century
Dimensions: 19 inches H. x 14 x 19.5 inches W.
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 …show more content…
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