1000 x 818 Visual Symbols of Self: South Sotho Arts and Initiation, Page 14 - Art & Life in Africa - The University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art

Visual Symbols of Self: South Sotho Arts and Initiation

by David M. M. Riep
Colorado State University, Fort Collins

A South Sotho initiate (bale) wears the lesira during the middle phase of lebollô. Free State, South Africa, December 2009. Photo by David M. M. Riep.

One of the most recognizable objects linked with South Sotho female initiation is the veil, or lesira. The lesira is essentially a grass veil that is worn to hide one's identity from strangers and outsiders, further emphasizing one's lack of identity during this phase of transition, and protecting the wearer from any malicious attack. This piece is also embedded with links to womanhood and fertility, making it a powerful signifier of one's future identity.  For example, the domestic space was formerly surrounded by a grass and reed screen called seötlwana, which not only shielded the family courtyard from passersby, but delineated the female domestic space, within which the women of the house held full authority. In addition, the lesira is a miniature version of the mosêmê, or woven grass mat that was used by women in the domestic space, and was a visual symbol of an ideal South Sotho female.