By Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

Sierra Leone; Mende peoples

Sowei mask


H. 39.4 cm (15 ½”)

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.336

Both men and women pass through initiation. For women, this life passage prepares them for life as adult women in Mende society, teaching them the skills of child rearing, cooking, trading, sex education, and much more. It is especially important as a means of communicating knowledge of healing medicines and the spirit world from one generation of women to the next. At the end of the initiation period the women are ritually bathed, their bodies are oiled with cosmetics, they are dressed in their best clothing and are presented to the community, ready to receive the gifts of potential suitors. Their reintegration into community life is accompanied by the appearance of masks such as this one, worn by the middle age women who supervise the initiation, and which represent the ideals of feminine beauty among the Mende. The Mende are very conscious of personal appearance value a glossy black skin, beautiful hairstyles, and a well-fed and prosperous physical condition.