spirit of Sierra Leone
14 February 2013 – 28 April 2013
The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Objects in focus
Recommend this exhibition
Sowei masks – unique to the region around Sierra Leone – are worn by senior members of the all-female Sande Society during rite-of-passage ceremonies that signify a girl’s transition to adulthood. They are carved expressions of local ideals of feminine beauty, health and serenity that vary widely in their detail.
Masquerade performances play an important symbolic role in the Sande Society. The mask is worn by the ndoli jowei (‘the sowei who dances’) along with a black raffia and textile costume which completely conceals her identity. Traditionally, the ndoli jowei appears at specific stages of the period of transition at events that are accompanied by music, dancing and singing. She is regarded as both a physical manifestation of the spirit of the Sande Society and an embodiment of its powerful medicines.
The mask featured in this display was collected in 1886 by Thomas Joshua Alldridge for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, where it represented the exotic ‘otherness’ of African culture and belief systems. The mask’s design is unusual in that it includes a top hat. This illustrates a two-way exchange of objects and iconography in which imported items of European clothing could be incorporated into traditional practices as symbols of power and prestige.
This display explores the cultural interaction that influenced the mask’s form and examines the ubiquity of sowei masks in museums around the world.
Sowei mask, collected by Thomas Joshua Alldridge in 1886.
Since 2005, the Museum has been working closely with national and independent museums across the continent. Find out more
Find out more about Sierra Leonean culture and heritage at www.sierraleoneheritage.org
Before going on display, members of the Sierra Leonean community in London asked that they conduct a ceremony to give the mask a name.
Wednesday 27 March, 13.15–14.00
A gallery talk by Fiona Sheales, British Museum.