BUNDU: Sowei Headpieces of the Sande Society of West Africa from the Imperato Family Collection

BUNDU: Sowei Headpieces of the Sande Society of West Africa from the Imperato Family Collection


Hello, my name is Dr.
Pascal James Imperato, and I am one of the curators of this exhibition,
(mystic folk music) Bundu Sowei Headpieces of the
Sande Society of West Africa. The other curator is my
son, Dr. Gavin Imperato. Both of us have spent a
very long time in Africa. I first became familiar with these masks when I was working in Africa eradicating small pox
over a six year period. These masks are the only
ones that are worn by women in Africa south of the Sahara,
so they are very unique. And each of them is slightly different in terms of details on the mask, because theses details represent a variety of religious and spiritual beliefs, and also convey the general
notion of feminine beauty, and modesty, and
adherence to moral values. These are helmet masks,
which means that they’re worn over the head, not just on the face. And generally they have a
good deal of black raffia attached to the bottom of them. And the dancers wwho
perform the masquerades with these masks are
generally completely covered, including their hands and their feet so that their identity
can not be discovered. These masks are used as part
of the initiation rights of a woman’s society that is found in four different countries: New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and
parts of the Ivory Coast, but mainly concentrated in
Liberia and in Sierra Leone. The society is embraced by
different ethnic groups, primarily the Mende
people of Sierra Leone, but also found among Vai and
the Gola of Western Liberia where I first encountered
them many years ago. Young girls are initiated
into this society in order to assure that they become wives, mothers, outstanding members of society, and to negotiate their role in
the political administration of their towns and villages. Because in each of these
places there is also a male initiation society
known as the Poro Society, and both the Sande and
the Poro work together. And the Sande Society
provides a venue for women to exert significant political influence and administrative influence in their villages and in their towns. Here we have an extremely old Bundu mask that probably dates to about the late 19th or early 20th Century. And it incorporates all
of the physical features that we find in these masks. First it is a helmet, and
it is topped by a bird. Now snakes and birds are
very commonly depicted on these masks, because the
snake does symbolize malevolency and the bird also symbolizes connection to the spirits and the supernatural world. So the juxtapositioning
of these two symbols very commonly seen on these masks brings together different
levels of interpretation, which are well know to
the members of the society but may not be known to ordinary people who look at these masks. Now, each of the coiffures has symbolisms that represent the belief
systems of the society members which date back to many many years. But the basic design depicts hair dos that were very common among these people in West Africa over a hundred years ago and which are not longer used by women. But nonetheless, these masks represent those very antique hairstyles. These masks are usually
made for a given chapter of the society, and quite
often after several years the society members decide
on having a new mask made. And although the masks are used by women, the masks are actually carved by men. The sculptures are really very elaborate, very detailed, and truly remarkable when one considers their being sculpted with very basic tools such
as axes, drills, and knives. Prestige symbols, such as pith helmets, that are depicted on these masks were very important to the
peoples of Sierra Leone, especially during the Colonial Era, because they were the hats that were worn by the British administrators. And their representation on these masks is a way of people indicating that this is a power source and a symbol of authority and prestige,
albeit one that is adopted from another culture, basically
British Colonial culture. Although the society is found
across several countries, each town or village
has their own chapter, with its own leadership. And usually the leadership are women who are much older, who also
tend to be local midwives and to practice herbal
and spiritual medicine. SO part of the initiation
is to teach young girls and young women, depending on the age at which they are initiated, the secrets of herbal medications and spiritual rites that are geared toward
helping people who are ill. The masks that appear
here have been collected over a period of many years, some of them going back to the 1960s and 1970s, when I first worked with
this society in Africa, and during the 1990s and 2000s by my son, who also is a physician and
who also worked in West Africa.

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    Nicole Sumner

    Using the passive tense is a way of not taking responsibility for how you got the masks and what you paid for them. "The masks that appear here have been collected over a period of many years…" The masks are now far from their origin and the museum collects money each time a tourist comes to see them.

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