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Bundu / Sowei Helmet Mask (Mende peoples)

The Sande Society's helmet mask, a Pan West African tradition, symbolizes the transition of girls to womanhood. Carved by men but worn by women, the mask's features teach values of modesty and morality. Its elaborate hairstyle and scarification marks reflect cultural aesthetics. Despite conflicts, this tradition continues today.

Bundu or Sowei Helmet Mask (Ndoli Jowei), Mende, Nguabu Master (Moyamba district, Sierra Leone), late 19th-early 20th century, wood and pigment, 39.4 x 23.5 x 26 cm (Brooklyn Museum) Speakers: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Steven Zucker.

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  • leafers tree style avatar for user shaylalugay
    I understand that this article is an educational resource, so khan academy has to keep it "safe," but why wasn't the practice of female genital mutilation mentioned? There are smart history videos and articles that mention beheading and bloody wars, and others which talk about phallic imagery... I don't see why discussion of female circumcision would be too explicit to be included in this video. It was a central function of the Sande society, from what I've read elsewhere.
    (12 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Thank you for getting me to look. My incorrect assumption was that female genital mutilation was an East African phenomenon. Your comment sent me to Google, and I didn't have to look past the Wikipedia entry on the Sande to find the following at

      Adolescent girls are initiated as a group during the post-harvest dry season in a specially cleared area of forest surrounding the town or village. The initiation period varies from several weeks to several months, depending upon such factors as the initiate's age, lineage membership, school attendance, and ethnicity.

      In the past, the girls are said to have remained in the forest for upwards of one year, during which time they made rice farms for the Sande leadership. In addition to the initiate's labor, Sande leaders receive a substantial initiation fee from the girl's father or her prospective husband, as a girl may not marry before initiation.

      According to Carol MacCormack:

      "Shortly after entering the Bundu bush, girls experience the surgery distinctive of a Bundu woman in which the clitoris and part of the labia are excised. It is a woman, the Majo (Mende), or head of a localized Bundu chapter, who usually performs this surgery. [A] Bundu woman told me that excision helps women to become prolific bearers of children. A Majo reputed 'to have a good hand' will attract many initiates to her Bundu bush, increasing her social influence in the process. Informants also said the surgery made women clean."[1]
      Many women who survive the "surgery" will have lifelong complications. Not only are the genitalia disfigured, multiple lacerations are made in the skin so that large scars will mark the initiate for life.
      (6 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user KEVIN
    How long would a mask be used for? Would it be used for one particular ceremony and then retired or would it be used multiple times?
    (7 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Миленa
      I see no reason why new ones would have to be carved each time, especially given that making a piece like this would be time-consuming in a society that was not as "technologically advanced" as today's world is. My guess is that the masks were used multiple times. Hope that helps. :)
      (1 vote)
  • hopper happy style avatar for user karminderjit Singh
    if the mask is made for women and it is brown. then why are the yonger girls face white
    (0 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user sloanp
    I understand that these masks are worn by women, but who does the carving? Men? Women?
    (1 vote)
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    • piceratops seed style avatar for user M
      i think the mask is made by men. traditionally, the art of mask making is passed down from father to son, not mother to daughter or father to daughter. also, at it says, "Made by male carver, wore by female masker".
      hope this helps!
      (1 vote)
  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user Angela Edwards
    why does it have to be clay the girls are covered in? There's nothing else they could use?
    (1 vote)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Edge (aka Dr. Rennie of Vulf) Bourret
    So where would this place for Mende women be?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user ReyesEduardo
    were doers the bundu mask come from
    (1 vote)
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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)