Exhibitions

Fowler in Focus: The Art of Women’s Masquerades in Sierra Leone

December 9, 2007 to April 27, 2008

For many generations, the women’s Sande association of the Mende peoples of Sierra Leone prepared young women for adulthood, marriage, motherhood, and leadership roles in society. Masquerade performances featuring carved wooden masks, music, dance, and theater signaled the ongoing stages of initiation to the community and celebrated the achievements of the initiates.

Exhibition In Depth

For many generations, the women’s Sande association of the Mende peoples of Sierra Leone prepared young women for adulthood, marriage, motherhood, and leadership roles in society. Masquerade performances featuring carved wooden masks, music, dance, and theater signaled the ongoing stages of initiation to the community and celebrated the achievements of the initiates. See twenty-six beautiful and highly symbolic masks dating from the 19th-early 20th century inFowler in Focus: The Art of Women’s Masquerades in Sierra Leone,” on display at the Museum from Dec. 9, 2007– Apr. 27, 2008. Also on display are several examples of deliberately grotesque masks for beloved “clowns” that serve as comic counterparts during Sande initiations.

Sande is a rare example of an African masquerade performed by women. In the aftermath of the brutal war that took place in Sierra Leone during the 1990s, however, it is not clear whether Sande masquerades continue. The masks on view pay tribute to a rich legacy of artistry that fuses spirituality and femininity with deep reservoirs of knowledge and power.

Sande masks are called sowei—a name also given to the highest-ranked woman in Sande—and they display a wide range of motifs within a fixed stylistic framework. There is no limit to innovation, so long as the mask is a helmet form with a gleaming black surface, an elegant coiffure, and an expression of inner spiritual concentration. Remarkable creativity characterizes the superstructures, facial features, and adornment of the masks.

In counterpoint to the beauty and refinement of Sande sowei masks, other masquerades are characterized by satire, parody, and humor. These men’s gongoli masquerades overturn conventional decorum and mock other maskers to the amusement and laughter of the audience. Four such masks are on display in this exhibition, with characteristic huge ears, gaping mouths, and other comical features.

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