For Women Only
The Sande Secret Society
May 1 through July 31, 1998
There are many secret societies in Africa. Some are headed by women, some by men. Sometimes the societies themselves are secret, i.e., no one other than the members know who belongs to the societies. In other cases, members are known to non-members, but the society has information and rituals that are known only to society members. This exhibition features mask forms found only in the female-only Sande Society of Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The Sande Society is responsible for teaching young women the skills and knowledge they will need as adults. The society operates the schools that initiate young women into adulthood. Initiation schools may last for anywhere from six months to three years, depending on the country and ethnic group. The society is also responsible for enforcing the laws that are passed down from the female ancestors. Even the chief must obey the laws of the Sande Society.
There is much misinformation printed about the society, largely because Europeans interpret the society from an outsider's viewpoint. Thus, many mistaken notions are now part of the literature written about the society. It is beyond the scope of this exhibition to correct all of that erroneous information. Rather, we will attempt to provide as much correct information as is permissible for non-initiates to know.
The Sande Society is found throughout Sierra Leone and Liberia. It is found among many people, including the Mende, Sherbro, Temne, Dei, Vai, Kpelle, Gola, Kono, Limba, Bassa, and Homwe. This exhibition will contain examples from several of these groups. The masks are helmet-type, i.e., they fit over the head of the dancer, rather than fitting only over the face. The masks are the property of the initiates themselves, and are worn at Society functions, at a parade marking the end of initiation, and at public festivals. At many public festivals the society holds a series of challenge dances at which each dancer attempts to out-do the others.
All of the masks are carved by professional carvers who are men, even though only women are permitted to own the masks. The design for the masks must fit into prescribed stylistic parameters, or they cannot be used for Sande Society functions. In some cases, the particular details of a mask come to a relative of the initiate in a dream. The dream is then related to the carver, who translates the information into the stylistic elements of the mask. The masks are generally dyed a dark brown or black. On rare occasions, I have also seen white-faced masks. Holes are drilled around the bottom of the mask, through which are attached strands of raffia that are usually dyed black. The dancer's costume consists of a dark blue or black "dress-like" garment to which dyed raffia is attached. The dancer wears dark gloves and stockings, as well as trousers. No one recognizes the dancer because she is covered from head to foot.
The masks are carved from a wood very similar to balsa; this is done to keep the mask as light-weight as possible. The weight of the mask is one of the characteristics used to determine how beautiful the mask is. Very heavy masks are most likely not carved for use by dancers.
All the masks, regardless of the people who produce them, share some similarities. They are usually black or brown. They are helmet masks that fit over the entire head of the dancer. They are very wide at the bottom, where there are rolls that circle the bottom of the mask. While it is true that women who are fatter are considered more beautiful, for a variety of reasons, there is no evidence that women are expected to be as large as the neck rolls on the mask would suggest. Some authors say that the rolls on the neck represent fat; others indicate that they depict concentric ripples of water that take place when the Sande spirit, which is a water spirit, emerges from the lake or river. There may be some measure of truth to each of these theories, but the most often overlooked reason for the large neck, which is larger in circumference than the rest of the mask, is a matter of stylistic necessity. The neck must be large in order to allow the mask to fit over the dancer's head. The rolls also reflect the belief that women who have lines in their necks are more beautiful. It is believed that everyone has a neck to keep her head off her shoulders, but if God took the time to etch lines on your neck, you must be a special person. Often, young women tie strings around their necks before they go to sleep, knowing that when they awake, they will have beautiful necks.
The variety of the mask is almost unlimited, even though they must fit established stylistic norms. There are many hairstyles depicted on the masks, as varied as the styles women in Sierra Leone and Liberia wear. Special "medicine" pouches, animal horns, and other materials may be added to the mask in order to provide extra power for higher ranking officials of the society. Tin, silver, and even hammered gold decorations can be found on masks belonging to the highest ranking officials.
The superstructure of the mask is as important as the face and other parts of the mask. Again, the forms used on the superstructure, or top, of the masks are almost endless. I have seen European crowns, pith helmets, cooking pots, beds, gold weights, birds, snakes, European religious and royal figures, horns, and other items carved into the surface of these masks. One theme that is very common on the superstructure, but is hardly ever mentioned, is sexuality. Many of the forms are stylized female labia. Images suggesting the male penis also appear often.
It should be noted that there are many societies in Africa that use masking traditions. However, of all the societies that I have visited or studied, the Sande Society is the only one I have discovered in which women are masked dancers. The masks themselves are called Bundu or Sowei.
While enrolled in the Sande school, the young initiates learn many secrets, among which is the art of using herbs, spices, and roots to make poisons, love potions, and impotency powders. Revealing any of the society's secrets to men or non-initiates would result in sanctions ranging from banishment to death. During their training, the young initiates "die" ritually and are reborn as new human beings. When the initiates return to their homes, they have new Sande names. It is also during this training that the young initiates undergo the highly controversial operation, the clitorectomy. Membership in the Sande society is highly sought because few opportunities exist for women who have not been initiated into the Sande Society.
It is beyond the scope of this exhibition introduction to provide a comprehensive overview of the Sande Society and the Bundu masks. If you wish to learn more, there are three very good books on the group. They are SANDE by Daniel Mato and Charles Miller III, BUNDU by Burkhard Gottchalk, and REPRESENTING WOMAN: SANDE MASQUERADES OF THE MENDE OF SIERRA LEONE by Ruth B. Phillips.
We sincerely hope that you will find our latest exhibition informative and enjoyable. We welcome suggestions for future exhibitions. Please sign the Gallery guest book, and tell us what you think of the show and how you found this exhibit (which search engine, link from what other site, etc.). Persevere to the end of the exhibit and you will find in the wrap-up links to some of our favorite Web sites showing African art and masks from other cultures.