Mende Initiation Helmet Mask, Sierra Leone
height of mask 15 1/2in (39.5cm)
sowei, of deeply hollowed form with finely carved braided and openwork design coiffure above a diminutive face with pierced, almond-shaped eyes, diminutive nose and mouth, finely raised beauty marks around the back of the mask and with finely braided fiber strings attached all around; exceptionally fine black, glossy patina.
Drs. Nicole and John Dintenfass, New York
According to McClusky (2002: p. 201), "'Black' and 'wet' are both designated by the Mende word teli. Masks are called 'the beautiful black thing' when they acquire a desirable dark hue, obtained by rubbing the surface with palm oil or shoe polish until it is sleek and shiny. Blackness and wetness refer to the ultimate origin of Sande knowledge--the nature of spirits who dwell in rivers in the bush, embodying the medicines to be found there. The highest ideals are said to arise from the depths of their underwater home, where miraculous delicate beings are the norm. When Sande girls emerge from initiation in their preferred physical state, their skin is oiled to emulate the appearance of underwater spirits. In addition, Sowei masks are most frequently seen at night, in the darkness. When Sande dancing occurred at night, the black masks would blend into the darkness, until light was cast and a luminous face would emerge.