Female Initiation

By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Sierra Leone; Mende peoples

Sowo mask


H. 40.2 cm (15 13/16")

Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, New Endowment Fund, 1990.268

For Mende, the eyes are symbolically equated with a woman's entire being. When an initiand’s eyes of “deepened discernment” are joined with those of the Sande Society mask she is performing, a woman gains a “double vision,” with all the secret power so implied. Simpler masks of more restrained design are commissioned by older women of the upper ranks of Sande to reflect their refined dignity and authority, while more flamboyant masks are chosen by younger women, according to their individual tastes and, undoubtedly, the fatuous vanity of youth. Extemporaneous dances by each mask during initiation and later rituals further accentuate a woman's self-invention (Phillips 1995). The Sande mask illustrated here includes carved reproductions of Islamic amulets around the towering coiffure to lend their mystical potencies to the young woman’s initiation performances.

sowei in costume with attendants, Njahindama, Kakua, Bo, Sierra Leone. Photo by Ruth Phillips.



Sierra Leone; Mende peoples. Women's Initiation. Video by Ruth Phillips.