Helmet mask, Mende, LIberia

Mende society is governed by several esoteric associations, foremost among which are the Sande women’s society and Poro men’s society. Both prepare young initiates for adulthood and make extensive use of masking. From generation to generation, such masks served to induct the new adults of the tribe into the next chapter of their lives, welcoming them to fully embrace the knowledge and lineage of their ancestors.

The splendid helmet mask presented here, known as ndoli jowei, represents a Sande guardian spirit. It shows a dense composition of closely packed forms, alternately sharp and softly undulating. The comely smoothness of the high forehead, diamond-shaped face, and bunched neck rings (a physical feature the Mende view as a sign of prosperity, fertility, and beauty) contrasts marvelously with the sharp and intensely detailed textures of the elaborate coiffure, which is designed with a fantastic array of braid panels and a topknot. A sumptuous black patina provides ample highlights that delineate and emphasize the complex interplay of shapes at work in this magnificently carved helmet mask.

First half 20th century
Height: 14 in; Width: 7 ½ in

Private Collection, USA

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