Mende society is governed by a number of esoteric associations, foremost among which are the Sande women’s society and Poro men’ssociety. Both prepare young initiates for adulthood and make extensive use of masking. The helmet mask presented here, known as ndoli jowei, represents a Sande guardian spirit. 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.
This fine, early example presents a dense composition of closely packed forms, alternately sharp and softly undulating. The comely smoothness of the high forehead, broad face and bunched neck rings (a feature the Mende view as a sign of prosperity, fertility and beauty) contrasts wonderfully with the tightly ridged texture of the elaborate coiffure. A sumptuous black patina provides ample highlights which delineate and emphasize the complex interplay of shapes at work in this magnificently carved helmet mask.
Charles Derby Collection, USA
Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA 1995
Middlebury College Museum of Art, Vermont 1996
Museum of Contemporary Art, University of Massachusetts, MA 2017