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Phillips, Ruth B. (1979) The Sande society masks of the Mende of Sierra Leone. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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The dissertation is a monograph on the sowei (or bundu) masks of the Mende of Sierra Leone. Its aim is to provide information which will aid in the understanding of its symbolic forms and in the appreciation of its aesthetic qualities. The sowei masker personifies the sacred spirit of the Sande, a women's secret society, into which all Mende girls are initiated at puberty and which marks the transition from child to adult. Masking figures prominently in its public ceremonies and although the general features of the society have been studied no detailed information about the ritual context of masking has been made available. The first section of the thesis therefore describes Mende masking in general and the specific ritual context of Sande society masking in particular. The role of the carver in Mende society, his repertory, the mythological structure for the creation of sowei masks and the system of patronage are also described in order to present information essential to the art-historical investigation of the sowei mask which is the focus of the thesis. Several hundred sowei masks were documented photographically in the field. This sample includes a core group of eighty masks from one chiefdom in central Mendeland which was studied in depth to provide a basis for comparison of regional variation in iconographic motifs, ritual usage, and carving style. The iconography of the mask is analysed and with the use of early field photographs, old masks, and informant interviews several motifs are identified which have been misinterpreted in the literature. A further analysis of the personal names given to the sowei masks shows that these names repeatedly refer to certain central ideas which elucidate the symbolic meanings of the masks. Finally, the formal stylistic range of the sowei mask is studied. This discussion is based on a study of masks in museum collections as well as on field material. Regional variation in carving style as well as changes over the last one-hundred years are described, and the stylistic characteristics of the Gola, Vai, Sherbro-Bullom, Kpa-, Ko-, and Sewa Mende are identified. An analysis of the eighty masks from the core area permits an examination of the degree of variation found within one chiefdom and the ways in which individual artists respond to the positive value which the Mende place on innovative carving on the one hand, and the necessity of adhering to traditional norms on the other.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses > Proquest
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 16 Oct 2018 15:13

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