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Carved wooden female figure (minsereh)

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Height: 57.000 cm

Gift of Montagu Shattock

AOA 1911-225

Africa, Oceania, Americas

    Carved wooden female figure (minsereh)

    Mende, probably late 19th century AD
    From Sierra Leone

    The Mende peoples of Sierra Leone have several social and religious societies, the Sande or Bundu for women, the Poro society for men and the Yassi society which admits both male and female members. These societies are responsible for the initiation and socialization of young women and young men into adulthood. Unusually in Africa, senior members of the Sande association wear wooden masks called sowei which are exclusively for their use, unusual because they are women. Masqueraders are normally men, even when they play female characters.

    The minsereh figure is used by the leader of the Yassi society, who is always a woman. It is mainly concerned with sexual behaviour and punishes those who transgress the rules. The leader of the association consults the minsereh when a Yassi law has been broken. The carving does not represent an actual ancestor but is an embodiment of the characteristics of ancestral guidance. The minsereh has decorative scarification and wears a beaded apron to indicate that she has been initiated.

    Girls of between six and fourteen are initiated into the Sande society for a period of about three years. They live together in a camp outside the village and are educated in preparation for marriage, domestic life, employment, musical pursuits and religious values. This experience helps to develop a sense of support and sisterhood amongst the young girls who are enouraged to develop social qualities such as leadership skills.

    Accompanied by maskers the young girls arrive back in the village and re-present their new identities as young, eligible women with new clothes, hairstyles and new names.

    H.M. Cole (ed.), I am not myself: the art of ma, Los Angeles monograph series, no. 26 (Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1985)

    F. Lamp, African art of the west Atlant (L. Kahan Gallery, New York, 1979)

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