Sande Masquerades: Teaching Inner and Outer Beauty
Many cultures in Africa have institutions or social associations that educate community members, uphold moral values and preside over public life. Mende peoples established institutions known as Sande associations a long time ago to educate young women and to address women’s issues in the local community. In theory, all women belong to Sande. The formal role of Sande begins in women’s lives at puberty, when girls must undergo a rigorous training period that marks their transformation from child to adult. There are also men’s associations, called Poro Societies, which educate young men. Together these institutions share the responsibility of making political, economic and judicial decisions.
Mendeland covers an area of nearly 12,000 square miles in the modern country of Sierra Leone (click to see where the country is located). With a population of about one million, Mende peoples are one of the largest groups of people of Sierra Leone. Most Mende people are farmers, and they live in villages or smaller towns. Their most important crop is rice, and land is farmed and owned by extended family households. Strong ties and obligations connect families. Villages and towns are governed by councils made up of family leaders and each district is presided over by an officer appointed by the central government. Although children also go to government-sponsored schools, they still receive education in traditional values that are organized by local community leaders, which are sponsored by Sande and Poro Societies.
The role of the Sande association is most visible when a group of girls is undergoing this educational process. The girls are taken to secluded camps away from the village and town and are taught proper female behavior, rules of conduct, and their roles as adults by older and respected women who are also leaders in the Sande association. During this period, which also includes the teaching of songs, dances and secret lore, a masked dancer will appear to mark important occasions. Like membership into Sande, the right to wear and dance the mask is exclusive to women.
The Sande masquerader (sowei), wearing a blackened wooden helmet mask and raffia costume, represents a water spirit. The masquerader is regarded as a personification of Sande power and knowledge, on both a political and religious level. The mask is also seen as the embodiment of Sande’s spiritual and healing forces. When the mask is not being performed in public with its complete costume, it is kept hidden and only certain leaders of Sande have access to it since it represents the sacred knowledge of the association. When the Sande masquerader appears, it communicates with gesture and dance. The lustrous blackness, beautifully arranged hair, downcast eyes, and closed mouth give the mask an air of inner spiritual concentration and refined physical perfection–ideals that women should strive for as member of Sande.
This activity will allow you to consider how an art object can be used to a teach about the importance of moral integrity, social values, proper behavior and ideal beauty. Sande masquerading will introduce you to the concept that art is often actively used and is meant to be part of a larger activity, when it is worn during performance or ceremony. The concept that art can be realistic and naturalistic vs. abstract and distorted will be introduced.
After reading the introduction above, read the focus questions below and examine the images of Sande masquerades and the masks.
FOCUS QUESTIONS (Click here to view the images mentioned in the questions)
1. Look at images of Sande masquerades (figures 1 and 2) and the Sande masks in a museum collection (figure 3). These are two very different contexts (places) in which people can see a Sande mask.
a. When a mask is being worn and performed, what do you think the audience focuses on?
b. When you look at a mask in a museum, what do you notice?
2. Considering the fact that the masquerade represents the power and spirit of the Sande association, why do you think the identity of the performer is a secret and that every inch of her body is kept hidden?
3. The training period during which the Sande masker often performs is a very difficult time for the young girls (figure 4 shows two students). It is a serious moment, testing their mental, physical, and emotional strength. How do you think the appearance of the Sande mask can help them during this period?
4. Look at figures 5-7. Is this a serious ceremonial performance, or more for entertainment? What institutions do we have, besides public schools, that teach young people important concepts like self-reliance and morals?
Representing ideas in art
Knowing that the mask represents ideas about beauty, morals, and good behavior, look at the mask carefully. Does it represent your idea of beauty? Is this a realistic representation of a beautiful woman? What makes it abstract?
These distortions are created by the artist for several reasons. For example, the mask does not represent a living human being, rather a spiritual force and symbolizes power. Why is it useful to represent ideas in an abstract form rather than realistically?
Try to match specific aspects of the masks to the ideas and concepts listed below. This will give you a sense of what each aspect of the mask stands for.
1. The waters of the lake where the spirit of Sande rests is a deep shiny black. It is mysterious and dark. How is this represented in the mask?
2. A wise woman weighs her words carefully and never reveals the secrets of Sande. How is this hinted at?
3. Mature women are always self-contained and strong. When a young woman’s emotional endurance is being tested, she should always look calm and in control. How does the mask give a sense of this?
4. It is considered beautiful to be healthy and well nourished. How is the concept of physical well being represented?
5. The Sande mask represents a spirit. Humans cannot look inside a spirit being. How is this concept shown on the mask?
6. Look carefully at the decorative details of the masks. The Sande spirit has the power to move between this world and the spirit world. It can move between several different realms, it can ‘fly’ and ‘swim’ at same time.
You can view a video of a Mende Masquerade here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBeH9KhQPww
Go on to Activity Three or go to another activity in this module