This helmet mask pertains to the Sande women’s initiation society. This was the only all- female masking society in Africa, which controlled the “halei” (medicine) sacred power that is bestowed by Mende/Gola deities. It would have been used in “now” masquerades designed to make manifest the power of halei without divulging its mysteries. It was danced with a long costume of dark material and raffia.
The ringed neck and small, diamond-shaped face are traditional. The coiffure is unusually ornate: complex hairstyles are considered beautiful, and the mat-weave margin denotes marriage and procreation. The neck-rings reflect metamorphosis, water (the origin of the Now spirit) and fecundity/attractiveness. The patination was caused by the application of halei materials; the mask remains with the owner until she retires, dies, or is promoted.
The Mende and the Gola are very closely related indigenes of Sierra Leone, who live in small chiefdoms regulated by the Poro (men) and Sande (women) secret societies. While their art is noted for its refinement, it finds no greater expression than the “bundu” masks, of which this is a truly exceptional example.