Helmet Mask

Bassa peoples

Not on view

This helmet mask evokes idealized feminine beauty and, like other masks of this type known as sowei developed in the region, would have been worn by leaders of the all-female society during the initiation of young women into adulthood. Within Mende and Sherbro culture in Sierra Leone, or Bassa and Vai cultures from neighboring Liberia, helmet masks are carved with symbolic features that endow wearers with spiritual power. Senior members of the Sande initiation society 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 latter feature has also been interpreted as suggesting the ripples on the surface of the water as the Sande spirit emerges during initiation rites. The late William Siegmann, who previously owned this helmet mask, did extensive research on forms of masquerades in Sierra Leone and Liberia. In his notes on another sowei mask now in the collection of the National Museum of African Art, he underlined the importance of snake depictions in Sande ritual practices or beliefs.

Helmet Mask, Wood, patina, Bassa peoples

Due to rights restrictions, this image cannot be enlarged, viewed at full screen, or downloaded.

Open Access

As part of the Met's Open Access policy, you can freely copy, modify and distribute this image, even for commercial purposes.


Public domain data for this object can also be accessed using the Met's Open Access API.