About Masks of the Sande Society

 Mary Worrall (i)

The masks of the Sande society provide a unique example of masquerade performed and controlled by women in sub-Saharan Africa, where masking is normally a male prerogative. Sande is the female hale, medicine, society of the Mende people, one of the largest ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. A male hale society, Poro, is also present. Public masquerades are an important part of Mende life, mediating between community at large and the societies that are central to education and social development.

Image of Mask

The masks used by the Sande appear primarily during the initiation cycle: periods of education and ceremony for young girls celebrating their transformation into adulthood, a time that includes training in the knowledge, skills, and behaviors necessary for adulthood. The initiation includes the operation of clitoridectomy, an operation that is an important part of this transition, but a source of controversy to outsiders. To be uninitiated means to be incomplete as a woman, never to become a nyaha- a woman who has become part of the Sande.

In Mende thought, physical beauty and strong moral character are interwoven and inseparable. Ideal attributes of female beauty are honed from the time a girl is an infant until after marriage. The Sowo mask illustrates the importance of being nyande, a term meaning both “beautiful” and “good” (Boone, 1986, p. 138).

Sowo masks are divided into three structural components- the neck, face, and coiffure. Carved from a single block of lightweight wood, the masks weigh only two to four pounds. The mask displays a shiny black surface representative of the value assigned to smooth dark skin. In Mende language, the term teli means both “black” and “wet”- an especially significant point in that the hale is often identified as a river dwelling spirit (Phillips, 1980, p. 114).

Image of Mask

Character, wisdom and promises of prosperity are conveyed through the high forehead. Mende women admire neck creases as prized beauty traits, an aesthetic criterion given artistic play in the mask. The highly stylized rings around the neck of the mask not only reflect ideal beauty, but also signify fertility and good health (Mato and Miller, 1990, p. 24). The eyes are small, either cast down or nearly closed. The downcast eyes are associated with the nonhuman and mysterious essence of the spirit inhabiting the mask. The mouth is closed or only slightly open, suggestive of seriousness and silence (Phillips, 1995, p. 116).

An individually designed and elaborate coiffure is the most prominent feature of the mask. The women’s art of hairstyling swerves as both a personal beauty statement and a reflection of social prestige among the Sande. Masks feature intricate braids, weavings, and buns reflective of actual Mende hairstyles. Mask coiffures are further embellished with additions of symbolic motifs such birds, snakes, cooking pots, cowrie shells, amulets, charms, crests, and crowns. These adornments refer to Sande traditions, proverbs, and teachings.

When Sowo masquerade appears in performance, the mask is worn with one or more capes of dyed black palm fiber around her neck and waist and under these a shirt, pants, and shoes that completely cover the body. When worn by the Sowei, a woman of title and rank at the highest leadership level of the Sande Society, a white scarf encircles the coiffure, white being the color representative of the spiritual world in Sande symbolism. The Sowei are considered to be superhuman among the Mende, and when in costume, these women literally personify the Sande hale and an embodiment of ngafa, its spirit. The mask is also worn by the ndoli jowei, an expert in dance who dances the mask in public and teaches dancing to initiates, The ndoli jowei is of the ligba rank, the second highest rank.

Image of Mask

The mask is the embodiment of the influence Sande has in every aspect of a Mende woman’s life. The mask brings into physical form the Sande spirit, while simultaneously reflecting ideals of social, ethical, and spiritual values instilled by this powerful society.

My Interest in the Masks

While a graduate student in art history, I became interested in the masks of the Sande society during a seminar in African Art History. Working with the masks provided an early curatorial experience and a favorite memory of graduate school.

We began the semester with a syllabus that followed a traditional seminar format of readings, discussion, research, writing, and presentations. Early in the semester, our class was presented with an opportunity to take on an additional project of developing an exhibit of African art for our university art museum. We enthusiastically said yes.

Each class member was to select a piece from the museum’s collection to research. We were to write a paper and present on our piece in the typical format of our program, but our selections would also be included in the exhibit and accompanying catalogue. Aware of my interest in women and art, my professor suggested I might be interested in looking at a mask from the Sande society. As we reviewed each other’s selections, we decided that our exhibit would focus on themes of self-transformation, spiritual transformation, and artistic transformation in Africa and the diaspora.

As I began my review of literature, I was intrigued that the masks were connected with a “secret” society for women. I was eager to learn more about the masks and the culture that made and used them. This review of literature eventually led to some conflicted feelings about the mask I was studying. I was captivated by the mask visually and by many aspects of what I learned about the role of the Sande society in the community. However, I was appalled to learn that the Sande initiation included clitoridectomy, a mutilation of the initiate’s genitals. The feelings that this issue brought to my study raised not only strong emotions, but also questions about museum exhibits that include objects or ideas that could be deemed controversial. What were the implications of interpreting the piece through the eyes of an art historian in the United States? To what extent should a piece of art be separated from the circumstances of its creation? How could and should this issue be presented in exhibit text?

Working on this student exhibit gave me an opportunity to put to use concepts introduced in coursework and taught me many of the details that go into the development of an exhibit. An especially strong memory is of working to convert my twenty-plus page class paper into length-appropriate exhibit text. Our professor worked with each class member on this task, guiding us through what we might want to include in our exhibit text and how to say it in the concise manner required of writing exhibit text.

During this class project, I worked with themes and ideas that continue to be of interest in my work. Concepts including how and why a museum might deal with controversial or emotionally difficult content, an interest in connections between art and human rights, and how the study of material culture informs about the people, time, place, and situation in which an object was created. Working with the Sande society masks helped to reinforce that a career in museums was a path I wanted to pursue.

Boone, S. (1986). Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Mato, D. and Miller, C. (1990). Sande: Masks and Statues from Liberia and Sierra Leone. Amsterdam: Gallery Balolu.
Phillips, R. (1980). The iconography of the Mende Sowei mask.” Ethnologische Zeitschrift Zurich 1, 113-132.
Phillips, R. (1995). Representing Woman: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.


(i) Mary Worrall is assistant curator of folk arts at the MSU Museum.

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