Mende Bundu Society (Sowei) Mask
This twentieth century mask from the Sande Society in Sierra Leone was used for ceremonial purposes in the initiation of young girls entering adulthood. Mature woman of Mende wore the mask in portraying the image of beauty and womanhood. The mask is a materialization of the embodied ideals of the Mende culture. The power of the mask is in the spirit, Sowo (also known as Nowo or Sowei), a water goddess. The mask wearer gives up her own identity to evoke the spirit, Sowo, by putting the mask on her head to make the spirit come to life. The Sowo spirit is present to escort the girls into initiation and provide guidance while they are in training. This spirit stays with them through the emergence into adulthood and marriage. The female masker appears at the time of female circumcision, which is the greatest single act of female imitation. It is said the mask mesmerizes the young girls and relieves the pain of the operation. The mask represents all that a woman should be: wise, elegant, and serene.

The mask is divided into four parts: the ringed neck, the face, the hair, and the head ornamentation. The neck rings are a sign of beauty, wealth, and status in the adult. They reflect waves on the surface of the water as the goddess Sowo rises up (Boone 13). It signifies divinity, and is almost an icon by itself, like the halo in a Christian painting (Boone). It is also possible that the rings represent the chrysalis of the moth or butterfly, since the neighboring people, the Temne, associates the Sowei spirit with the chrysalis of the butterfly. The imitation ensures their metamorphosis from girls to mature woman.

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