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African Masks and Masquerades



Men and women play different roles in masquerades.
This mask from the Sande Society was worn by a mature woman as part of an initiation ceremony for young girls.
zoom This mask from the Sande Society was worn by a mature woman as part of an initiation ceremony for young girls.

 

Although masks can represent either male or female figures, almost all maskers all male. In most African communities, although women are not allowed to wear masks, they still participate in masquerades as audience members. They often perform songs and dance to accompany the masker. Women also assist in creating the masker's costume, sometimes even providing their own clothing for the female figures.

The Sande Society of the Mende people in Sierra Leone is one exception to the "men only" rule. The Sande Society is a society of women responsible for teaching young girls the skills and knowledge to become a woman. The spirit, sowei, appears to the young girls several times in the initiation period to provide guidance. The mask, worn by a woman represents an ideal woman. The mask's delicate facial features, elaborate hairstyle, and rings on the neck represent feminine beauty.


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1. This mask has carefully filed teeth, a sign of beauty among the Yombe people. It represents an ideal woman and was probably worn in ritual dances associated with fertility.
2. This mask represents another view of ideal feminine beauty. It was once used in dances to provide an example of how a Guro woman should behave.
3. This Mwana Pwo (young woman) mask represents the female ancestor of the Chokwe people. It is always worn by a man who is disguised as a woman with a bodysuit, false breasts, and a skirt.

 

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April 2004