If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:5:36

Bundu / Sowei Helmet Mask (Mende peoples)

Video transcript

we're in the Brooklyn Museum and we're looking at one of several helmet masks for the sandy society this is a Pan West African phenomenon where several different ethnic groups participated in this masquerade tradition 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 but what makes it really unique is it's the only masquerade tradition that we know of where women wore the mask no man would have made this mask would have actually carved it but the entire ritual was performed by and for women 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 everyday 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 the members of the Sande society and again this was a secret society that girls all girls were initiated into his real symbolism in being taken from the village into this more dangerous place 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 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 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 we see eyes that are largely closed and seemed quite demure we see a very small mouth and very petite ears and these downcast eyes suggest that she should be reserved smallmouth 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 is not to listen to that gossip but probably most evident is this wildly elaborate hairstyle and the hairstyle 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 coffer we don't know the symbolic meaning of all of these things many of this has learned as knowledge of that secret society and this is not just historical and this is a continuing tradition 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 one of the other most evident features are the rolls of fat under the chin they are to suggest 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 to the so a mask is thought to be a spirit she comes from the bottoms of rivers and lakes below her eyes there are four lines on either side these are scarification marks and they're part of the ideal aesthetic for a young man day woman while 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 math teaches the girls particular dance movements and stories through 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 so the mask is this container of these very rich traditions 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 anaesthetise eyes Dobb ject in the Western tradition very different from the way this would be understood in its original context and young women think of this as a spirit when it's danced with its raffia and this masks would be used over and over again but when they were not in the ritual itself they would not have that spiritual presence it would have been housed in an elder woman's home who is an official from the Sundy 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 you