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Superb African Wooden Mende Helmet Mask

Africa, Liberia or Sierra Leone, Mende people, ca. late 19th to early 20th century CE. A large and skillfully carved wooden Bundu mask used during ceremonies associated with the Sande female societies. Such masks embody idealized female beauty traits and oftentimes represent a revered ancestor of the society. This example presents a visage with characteristically narrow slit eyes, a prominent forehead adorned with a hammered nickel-silver sheet cross form, a squared off nose, and petite ears as well as a lovely triple-crested coiffure with striated and plaited sections (one crest decorated with another nickel-silver cross ornament) and on the lower back, several tubular-rolled sections. Impressive for its expert carving technique, beautiful aesthetic, and ceremonial purpose (see below). Size: 9.375" L x 7.75" W x 16.625" H (23.8 cm x 19.7 cm x 42.2 cm)

This type of mask is used by a female society within the Mende culture on important occasions: handing down justice, attending funeral ceremonies, and going through initiation rites. During those initiation rites, the women who are already initiated, the Sande, wear these masks when they greet the newly initiated as they return from three months' seclusion in the forest. In use, the masks are complemented by long costumes attached to cover the entirety of the body so that the identifications of the women remain anonymous. Often these masks combine male elements with female elements to show that the women have attained the same amount of knowledge as men. Similar examples exist in the Vatican Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Condition: One nickel-silver cross ornament missing from right-most crest of coiffure. A perforation atop middle crest of hairdo and cut-out section to one side of it suggest there was an additional adornment at one time. Expected surface wear, age cracks, and abraded areas. Small losses to forehead, neckline, and a few peripheries as shown.

Provenance: Adeon Gallery, Chicago, Illinois USA acquired prior to 1970

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