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Sowei mask, Sierra Leone

Sowei helmet mask, collected in 1886, raffia palm fibre and cotton wood, 43 x 25 cm,  Sierra Leone © Trustees of the British Museum

Sande society

Sowei masks—unique to the region around Sierra Leone—are worn by senior members of the all-female Sande Society during rite-of-passage ceremonies that signify a girl’s transition to adulthood. They are carved expressions of local ideals of feminine beauty, health and serenity that vary widely in their detail.
Masquerade performances play an important symbolic role in the Sande Society. The mask is worn by the ndoli jowei ("the sowei who dances") along with a black raffia and textile costume which completely conceals her identity. Traditionally, the ndoli jowei appears at specific stages of the period of transition at events that are accompanied by music, dancing and singing. She is regarded as both a physical manifestation of the spirit of the Sande Society and an embodiment of its powerful medicines.

Colonized and colonizer

The mask featured in this display was collected in 1886 by Thomas Joshua Alldridge for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, where it represented the exotic "otherness" of African culture and belief systems. Although this mask bears much of the customary iconography seen on other sowei masks: blackened surface, small facial features, prominent forehead and elaborate hairstyle it has an extraordinary feature in the form of a Western-style top hat. At the time this mask was collected at the end of the nineteenth century imported items of Western clothing were used by members of the Sierra Leonean elite as symbols of status and power. At the same time Europeans eagerly collected African masks and displayed them in museums as examples of exotic "otherness." This two-way interpretation of a single object questions the impact of the cultural contact between colonized and colonizer.
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