Helmet Mask



Helmet Mask


Ceremonial costume, effigy, mask, scultpure


late 19th Century


Sierra Leone


15 3/4 x 7 x 9 3/4 in. (40 x 17.8 x 24.8 cm)

Object Number



Masks called Sowo (pl. Sowei) or Bondo, are commissioned and worn by female members of the Gola, Temne, and Mende Sande societies in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The Sande society is responsible for the instruction of young girls into adulthood. This process occurs in the forest under the guidance of senior Sande members and Sowo or Bondo nature spirits. Once they have learned basic female values and trained for marriage, domestic life, and religious, economic, and political pursuits, the girls are integrated back into the village as women. On this festive occasion they are accompanied by Sowei masqueraders.

Although owned by women, Sande masks are carved by male artists who work in dialogue with their personal neme spirit, as well as the individual Sowo spirit that will inhabit the mask during masquerade performances. While carving is not always a professionalized specialty, artists are considered exceptional people and are called yun go gwa, "a dreamer". A dreamer's neme spirit bestows gifts of talent and greatness, though often at a price.

An artist demonstrates his relationship with the supernatural by making visible in his art that which he has dreamed. When a Sande society member commissions a mask, she reveals to the artist the name of the individual Sande spirit to inhabit it. The artist then secludes himself in the forest, the realm of Sande spirits, to visualize through dreams the personality of the spirit that will inhabit the mask. The mask must be refined and aesthetically pleasing, or the spirit will not enter it. Small facial features, rings round the neck, a broad forehead, beautiful hairstyles, and a dark shiny surface are the aesthetic ideals favored by Sande spirits. Each mask also makes visible the halei, (powerful medicine of Sowo spirits) through carved horns and amulets.

Credit Line

Gift of Sue Trotter


Divine Intervention: African Art and Religion, Michael C. Carlos Museum, February 5 - December 4, 2011
MCCM Newsletter, Spring/Summer 2011.


© Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. Photo by Bruce M. White 2010.
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On View



“Helmet Mask,” Michael C. Carlos Museum Collections Online, accessed February 19, 2019, http://carlos.digitalscholarship.emory.edu/items/show/7096.

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