Sowei mask
spirit of Sierra Leone

14 February – 28 April 2013

The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Objects in focus

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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.

Search for and discover hundreds of other Sierra Leonean pieces at the British Museum collection online database.

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