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British Museum displays Sowei mask from Sierra Leone acquired in 1886 by the museum
Sowei mask; carved wooden helmet mask, janus-faced and stained black; Made in Sierra Leone; 1880-1886 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

LONDON.- This fascinating display explores some of the many stories that can be told through a single object collected at the end of the 19th century in Sierra Leone, West Africa. The sowei mask is worn and performed by a member of the Sande Society and the mask wearer bears the same title – sowei – as the highest ranking members of the Society. Sowei masks are works of artistic creativity that connect human and spirit worlds and this mask, with its representation of a Western hat, also challenges perceptions about colonial power.

Among the Mende people in Sierra Leone, the Sande Society is a women’s association entrusted with the education and preparation of young girls for adult life. This has traditionally included their physical transformation from child to adult through circumcision, and formal instruction by Sande elders who teach them special dances and songs which often include moral stories that reinforce social values. After this initiation period, they return to their families during a ‘pulling’ (coming out) ceremony when they re-enter the community as responsible adult women. Masquerade plays an important part of this ceremony. The mask wearer is known as the ndoli jowei – ‘the sowei who dances’. Traditionally, the ndoli jowei would appear in public on specific occasions accompanied by music, dancing and singing. She wears a costume of black raffia surmounted with a distinctive carved wooden helmet mask. She is viewed as both a physical manifestation of the spirit of the Sande Society and is an embodiment of its powerful medicines.

This particular mask was acquired by the British Museum in 1886, when objects from Sierra Leone were collected by Thomas J. Alldridge especially for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London. The form and function of masks and masked dancers were routinely misinterpreted by Europeans who consistently described them as ‘devils’. Such labels reflected the prejudices of European audiences and served to reinforce the prevailing perceptions of Africa at the time. Whereas the mask on display was originally used to exemplify the exotic ‘otherness’ of Africa, it is surmounted by a representation of a European-style hat. The late nineteenth century was a period of unprecedented mobility of both objects and people. Imported items of Western clothing were appropriated by powerful members of the community in Sierra Leone and were used as explicit symbols of elite status. Therefore the incorporation of this Western item of dress on the sowei mask challenges perceptions about the balance of power between the colonised and British colonisers at this period. Thomas J. Alldridge would subsequently become a colonial administrator in Sierra Leone and the author of two books about the region and its people. He was also a keen photographer and was the first to document many aspects of Sierra Leonean cultural and political life, including the practices of the male Poro society and female Sande or Bondo society. These were powerful organisations into which most men and women were initiated. The power of such initiation societies derived partly from their relationship with the world of the spirits – the forces of nature, and of the ancestors.

Perhaps due to their infinite variety and transportability sowei masks have been acquired since the late 19th century in Europe and North America as diplomatic gifts or curiosities, through trade, travel and research. As a result the sowei mask has become an instantly recognisable and powerful emblem of Sierra Leone and its cultural heritage. Sowei masks have been reproduced on postage stamps and bank notes, used as advertising images in popular culture and to decorate monuments and government institutions.

The Sande Society still plays an important role in women’s lives today. However, the practice of female circumcision which traditionally takes place during Sande initiation continues to provoke serious debate both within Sierra Leone, and internationally.

As Sierra Leone continues to emerge from a decade of civil war, there is a desire for society to regain a sense of shared values. Traditional beliefs are tested by changes to modern life such as the recent proliferation of Pentecostal Christian churches. Against this ever-fluctuating background it seems likely, however, that the sowei mask will endure as a powerful and iconic symbol of Sierra Leone.

This exhibition has developed through a partnership between the Africa Programme at the British Museum and the Sierra Leone National Museum.

There will be a rare opportunity to see the ndoli jowei masquerade of the Sande Society perform live at the British Museum on the 16 February at 14.00 . This free event to accompany the display will take place in the Great Court.

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