Object Name: Mask (Sowei)
Cultural Group: Mende peoples
Place of Origin: Sierra Leone
Date: Late 19th century
Materials Used: Wood, pigment
Dimensions: H: 41.9 cm
Credit line and Accession Number: Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of the Wellcome Trust. X65.4778
A rare and elegant late nineteenth-century Sowei/Nowo headdress from the Sherbro Bullom peoples of Sierra Leone features the idealized attributes and beauty of a young woman. The ringed neck suggests ripples of water, as if the spirit has just emerged from the depths. It may also resemble the chrysalis of a moth or butterfly as a sign of beauty and female transformation.
The snakes that appear coiled on either side of the head are among the most frequent motifs depicted on Sowei/Nowo headdresses. Generally considered to be water creatures, snakes reveal a constellation of ideas about ancient African water spirits and later, Mami Wata. They are the guardians of the medicines of Sande/Bondo, and shrine sculptures often depict a female-headed coiled snake or a female head and neck encircled by a snake. Wall paintings of Tingoi/Njaloi sometimes show her as a serpent-fish with a human head adorned by elegantly arranged and luxuriant hair.
Source: Drewal, Henry John. (2008) “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas”, Los Angeles, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. page 30
See also: Marla C. Berns, World Arts, Local Lives: The Collections of the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Fowler Museum, Los Angeles, 2014