Sowei mask (a) and raffia fringe (b). Carved wooden helmet mask, janus-faced and stained black. The mask has small facial features and the hairstyle is represented by geometric carved patterns. Two large amulets are carved into each side of the head. The mask is surmounted by a representation of a European-style top hat. The base of the mask is pierced with small holes for the attachment of the black-dyed raffia fringe.
- Made in: Sierra Leone
- (Africa,Sierra Leone)
- Found/Acquired: Sherbro
- (Africa,Sierra Leone,Sherbro)
- Height: 43 centimetres (mask)
- Width: 25 centimetres (mask)
- Depth: 30 centimetres (mask)
- Length: 44 centimetres (fringe)
- Width: 54 centimetres (fringe)
Sowei mask used by the exclusively female Sande (Mende) or Bondo/Bundu (Temne) societies. The mask is traditionally worn by a high-ranking member of the society, the dancing sowei, known as the 'ndoli jowei' among the Mende or 'a-Nowo' among the Temne.
Worn with a raffia costume, the masks typically have a polished black finish, with neck rings, elaborate coiffure and dignified facial expression. The mask is thought to represent conceptions of idealised womanhood. This example is particularly unusual as the mask is wearing a top-hat. European top hats became a symbols of prestige among the Sierra Leoneon elite in the late 19th century.
A replacement fringe was commissioned in Sierra Leone for the exhibition 'Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone' which was part of the Asahi Shimbun 'Objects in Focus' series at the British Museum from 14 February - 28 April 2013.
1 February 2013
Reason for analysis
A report on the analysis of the surface coating and wood of a Sowei mask - 1886,1126.1
Analysis was requested to determine the composition of the black, shiny coating on a Sowei helmet mask, 1886,1126.1 prior to conservation. The coating was examined using Fourier-transform-infra-red spectroscopy (FT-IR), gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), high performance liquid chromatography with diode array detection (HPLC-PDA), scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and Raman spectroscopy. Analysis revealed both organic and inorganic components. The organic component included burnt plant material, a plant gum or gummiferous plant matter, and a fat which may be palm stearin. The black dye was found to be largely composed of ellagic acid, a compound related to plant tannins. The inorganic content consisted of carbon, iron oxide and kaolinite. The carbon is probably burnt plant material while the iron oxide and kaolinite may be contaminants as they are ubiquitous. The wood used to construct the mask was identified from small fragments of wood removed with the coating as one of the Bombax species which are tropical West African rainforest trees. These discoveries closely match the accounts given in the ethnographic literature of the traditional manufacture of these Sowei masks.
Analysis reference number
Africa, Oceania & the Americas
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Object reference number: EAF888
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