African designs, £9.99
Height: 57.000 cm
Gift of Montagu Shattock
Africa, Oceania, Americas
Carved wooden female figure (minsereh)
Mende, probably late 19th century
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.
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
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)