Mende Maternity Figure. Size: height 33 x width 9 x depth 7 cm. Medium: Carved timber & pigment. Origin: Sierra Leone and Liberia (see ethnographic notes below) Provenance: Private Collection, Cape Town.
The 2,000,000 Mende comprise numerous kinds of social structure, such as firmly marked kin groups, political hierarchies and societies for diverse purposes: training boys and girls in appropriate behavior, protection against enemies or curing illnesses. The Mende are farmers who grow rice, yams, peanuts, and cocoa and who collect palm oil. They practice crop rotation to avoid exhausting the soil. Most bodily ills are believed to result from transgressions against the rules of conduct laid down by one sodality to another.
The Mende are best known for smooth, black, helmet-shaped masks, named sowei, used by the sande society, in particular, during the initiating girls. The initiates learn wisdom, beauty, grace, and self-control, all of which they will need within the multigenerational, polygamous households of their future husbands. All Mende girls join the sande society at puberty. Representing female water spirits, the masks have an idealized female face whose aesthetic reflects religious and philosophical ideals. The design of the facial features conforms to strict conventions and has symbolic content. These masks are characterized by the shiny skin, the rings at the neck and the elaborate hair styling that suggest good health and a well-to-do social condition. The characteristic rings at the base of the masks can be explained as the concentric ripples created as the spirit emerges from the water. On the other hand, they are also believed to represent folds of fat, considered a sign of beauty, fertility, vitality, and health. The coiffures, on the other hand, display a great range of variations, which reflect changing fashions and thus may facilitate the dating and localization of the masks. These helmets were carved from the full trunk of a large tree. Sowei appears in public during the time when young girls are initiated into adulthood. It may also emerge at the crowning of or during the funeral ceremonies of a paramount chief. The masks are carved by men, but danced by women. This is unusual in Africa, since men usually wear masks that conceal the face. They were worn over the head with the rim resting on the shoulders. There are helmets with one, two, or four faces. Because the mask is "found" beside a stream deep in the forest, where the sande spirit is said to live, and is supposed not to be an artifact at all, the carver in this case is anonymous. The dancer takes care that her costume contain no opening other than a narrow slit for the eyes, not to come into contact with the spirit, which she imagines as possessing a fearful, all-consuming power.
Members of the corresponding male society, poro, also wear masks, although they are of differing form. The women's yasse, a divination and healing society, employs slender human figures called minsere. Large ugly gongoli masks are used entirely for entertainment. Fecundity fetishes are also known.