The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Women's Art and Initiation in Mendeland

by Ruth Phillips, Henrietta Cosentino and Rebecca Busselle
(R.P.) Carleton University

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


Among the approximately one million Mende people of southern Sierra Leone, as among many of their neighbors, powerful associations control the most important activities of men and women. The women's organization, Sande, is famous, too, because it sponsors masquerades in which women wearing carved helmet masks represent the Sande society and the ideals of female beauty and power that it promotes. The Sande masquerade has attracted the interest of scholars and art collectors not only because of the iconographic variety and formal beauty of the carved masks, but also because it is the only known instance where women, rather than men, impersonate spirits wearing full body disguises and carved headpieces. Because of the prominence of women in Mende life—they not only control important areas of social; life, but can also rule as chiefs—the Sande mask is an outstanding example of the visual expression of African female power. (RP)