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Bundu / Sowei Helmet Mask (Mende peoples)

Video transcript

(piano music) - [Stephen] We're in the Brooklyn Museum and we're looking at one of several helmet masks for the Sande Society. - [Peri] This is a Pan West African phenomenon where several different ethnic groups participated in this masquerade tradition. - [Stephen] The mask we're looking at would have been worn, not in front of the face, but on top of the head. But the person who wore it would have been obscured by raffia that would have hung down over the face. - [Peri] But what really makes it really unique is it's the only masquerade tradition, that we know of, where women wore the mask. - [Stephen] Now, men would have make this mask, would have actually carved it. But the entire ritual was performed by, and for, women. - [Peri] It was made to help young girls go through initiation. Young girls among many different ethnic groups, including the Mende, whose group made this particular mask, would have been taken from their every day lives and their chores to a secluded area in the forest where they would be instructed on how to become good wives and good mothers by members of the Sande Society. And, again, this was a secret society that girls, all girls, were initiated into. - [Stephen] There's real symbolism in being taken from the village into this more dangerous place. - [Peri] This was a liminal time for girls, and, in fact, their bodies would be anointed with white clay to make them dry and pasty and unattractive to suggest that they were not girls but hadn't yet become women. And so, it was outside of the realm of the village, where this could take place. - [Stephen] If we look at the mask, it's got a beautiful, deep black sheen. The surface is smooth and glistening, and is in such contrast to that chalky, white. - [Peri] This black shininess is really the ideal. So what the artist has done, the carver, is create an image that suggests an inner quality or the inner morality that young girls should strive for. The mask becomes an ideal for the young girls to mimic in their adult lives. - [Stephen] Well, we see eyes that are largely closed and seem quite demure. We see a very small mouth and very petite ears. - [Peri] And these downcast eyes suggest that she should be reserved. The small mouth suggests she should keep her mouth closed and not gossip. Gossip being the most dangerous thing in a small society, in many cases. And then small ears so as not to listen to that gossip. - [Stephen] But probably most evident is this wildly elaborate hair style. - [Peri] And the hair style is where the artist has room for play. So, we have that seriousness of the face, this high, glossy forehead, but then we have this elaborate coiffure. We don't know the symbolic meaning of all of these things. Many of this is learned as knowledge of that secret society. - [Stephen] And this is not just historical. This is a continuing tradition. - [Peri] Because of the civil war in Sierra Leone and surrounding countries, all sorts of conflicts, we don't know to what extent this tradition continues today. - [Stephen] One of the other most evident features are the rolls of fat under the chin. - [Peri] The artist suggests that she is full-figured, that she has enough body fat to be able to bear children. And she is expected, after initiation, to marry and have children. So this suggests an ideal, again. Also in seclusion, during initiation, is the only time a young girl is given really rich foods to eat and can enjoy time off. So it's intended to fatten her up a little bit too. The Sowei mask is thought to be a spirit. She comes from the bottoms of rivers and lakes. - [Stephen] Below her eyes, there are four lines on either side. - [Peri] These are scarification marks and they're part of the ideal aesthetic for a young Mende woman. While all the girls are in seclusion, in that liminal space, not yet women but no longer girls, they're referred to as chrysalis, that is not quite the butterfly but no longer the caterpillar. And that shape is also echoed in the shape of her neck. So, we have a multiplicity of meanings which are partly to do with the way scholars have studied them but also to do with the fact that girls are exposed to different knowledge at different times in their life when the Sande members feel that it's appropriate. While this mask is intended to instruct young girls about proper womanhood, it actually never speaks. It never says a word. So, this mask, silent, is able to teach young girls. And the way in which that is done is through dance. So, the masks teaches the girls particular dance movements and stories to those dances, telling girls, not only practical information on how to cook and raise kids, but also spiritual knowledge and information about their belief system. - [Stephen] So the mask is this container of these very rich tradition. When we see it without its raffia, when we see it not worn, not part of this process of initiation, we're seeing it really as an aestheticized object in the western tradition. Very different from the way this would be understood in its original context. - [Peri] And young women think of this as a spirit when it's danced with its raffia. - [Stephen] And these masks would be used over and over again, but when they were not in the ritual, itself, it would not have that spiritual presence. - [Peri] It would have been housed in an elder woman's home who is an official from the Sande Society, and it was quite fine for young initiates to see it. They wouldn't regard it as a spirit. They would regard it merely as a piece of wood because, again, it was not performing with its raffia costume and its attendants and musicians. (piano music)
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