Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Helmet Mask

19th–20th century
Sierra Leone, Moyamba region
Mende or Sherbro peoples
Wood, metal
H. 18 7/8 x W. 8 3/4 x D. 9 1/4in. (47.9 x 22.2 x 23.5cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Robert and Nancy Nooter, 1982
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 350
This helmet mask reveals the hand of a master through its refined execution, harmonious design, and innovative departures. Within Mende and Sherbro culture, helmet masks are carved with symbolic features that endow wearers with spiritual power. Senior members of two distinct initiation societies, Sande and Humui, may have worn this work in performances.

As a representation of the guardian spirit of Sande -- a powerful pan-ethnic women's association responsible for education and moral development -- the work alludes to an idealized female beauty. Worn at performances to celebrate the completion of the young initiates' training period, these masks are finely carved to convey admired feminine features: an elaborate coiffure, a smooth broad forehead, narrowly slit eyes, a small composed mouth, and a sensuously ringed neck. The presence of a beard -- a symbol synonymous with the wisdom men achieve with age and experience -- may suggest that through Sande women attain the same amount of knowledge as men.

In Humui, a medicine society for men and women, this type of helmet mask has been used to address curative needs, especially mental illness. The four projecting animal horn amulets that rise from the perimeter may be a reference to the horns filled with protective medicinal ingredients worn by Humui members.
Robert and Nancy Nooter, Washington, DC, until 1982

Jones, Julie, Susan Mullin Vogel, and Kate Ezra. Notable Acquisitions (Metropolitan Museum of Art) (1982–1983), pp. 73–77.

Newton, Douglas, Julie Jones, and Kate Ezra. The Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Americas. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987, p. 75.

African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art. New York: Sotheby's, New York, May 16, 2013, no. 121, for comparison.

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