Vai Sande Society Helmet mask from Liberia (Sierra Leone) with small head and wicker head piece; measures approximately 16" tall; please refer to photographs for condition.
The masks of the Sande society provide a unique example of masquerade performed and controlled by women in sub-Saharan Africa, where masking is normally a male prerogative. Sande is the female hale, medicine, society of the Mende people, one of the largest ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. A male hale society, Poro, is also present. Public masquerades are an important part of Mende life, mediating between community at large and the societies that are central to education and social development. The masks used by the Sande appear primarily during the initiation cycle: periods of education and ceremony for young girls celebrating their transformation into adulthood, a time that includes training in the knowledge, skills, and behaviors necessary for adulthood. The initiation includes the operation of clitoridectomy, an operation that is an important part of this transition, but a source of controversy to outsiders. To be uninitiated means to be incomplete as a woman, never to become a nyaha- a woman who has become part of the Sande. In Mende thought, physical beauty and strong moral character are interwoven and inseparable. Ideal attributes of female beauty are honed from the time a girl is an infant until after marriage. The Sowo mask illustrates the importance of being nyande, a term meaning both “beautiful” and “good”.