Collecting Masterpieces
Photo of sowei-mask-sierra-leone-joseph-mueller

 

Tribal Art
EXCELLENT SOWEI MASK
Africa

EX JOSEPH MUELLER COLLECTION

 

Object :
Nº 1030
Medium :
Wood
Dimensions :
Height: 45.5 cm (17.9’’) – Width: 24.5 cm (9.6’’)
Bibliography :
Published in Collecting Masterpieces Part One, by Beryl Cavallini on pg 88 - 89

Black wooden mask representing a feminine face, with a very elaborate hairstyle consisting of six sinuate plaits encircling the head and jutting out above in the shape of an animal. The face is concentrated in a rather small space in the first third of the mask. Holes drilled at the bottom of the collar to fix rafia. The patina is obtained by rubbing it with ficus leaves and the black tint by a concoction of leaves. Before wearing, it is the custom to grease it with some palm oil to make it more shiny. Excellent state of preservation, good shiny patina. Traces of xylophagous insects and small scratches and damage due to use.  

This Sowei mask is not an ordinary piece as Sandé is the only female society with initiation rites in Western Africa to wear masks made by men during ritual dances and funerals. This association concerns itself with the moral education of very young girls, who are kept in camps before undergoing very precise rituals. Belonging to the tradition of the Mandé people of Sierra Leone, it represents the face of an idealized young woman, her elaborate hairstyle being one of its symbolic elements. Consisting of six plaits forming lobed wings, it is topped with a jutting motif in the shape of an animal on the top of the head. The upper part of the mask has a leaf motif, while the lower part is decorated with parallel bumps resembling ripples in a river. This mask symbolises the feminine spirit of the water when after the Sandé rite the young woman was immersed in a pond. The rather small face, following local customs, has almond-shaped eyes symbolising humility, and the smooth and shiny wood recalls dark oiled skin, considered supremely beautiful among this ethnic group. The wide and markedly stout neck is another aesthetic point of reference for beautiful Mandé women. The signs of scarification, consisting of four vertical lines on each cheekbone, reflect in a naturalistic way the local habits of adornment. . The beautiful dark patina of this mask is obtained by rubbing it with a concoction of ficus leaves, while its shine is due to the use of palm oil. The holes ranged along the bottom of the mask were used to attach long skeins of raffia, which looked like a dress. I have chosen this mask for its style, the quality of its proportions and its finish. These are the signs that Joseph Mueller, who had the eye of a great collector, was able to spot when he discovered it on one of his trips to Africa.