african masksMende
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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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African tribes>West Africa>Guinea-Coast
MendeMende mask from the Norden-Verhaeghe collection (prov.: ex- Menist) photo(c)David Norden 2006

The Mende of Sierra Leone are best known for smooth, black, helmet-shaped masks, representing the Sande society, which is responsible for initiating girls into womanhood. This is the only women's society on the continent known to use masks.


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. 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 also used, but entirely for entertainment. In preparing their rice farms, the Mende often uncover figures carved in soapstone and known as nomoli, which they set up in shelters to protect the crop. The figures are similar in style and are thought to be similar in date to ivories carved in the 16th century for Portuguese traders in the adjacent Sherbro area.
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The Tribal Arts of Africa

The Tribal Arts of Africa
Author: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart

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