Mende Spirit Helmet Mask
This exquisite 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.
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 Mende belong to a larger group of Mande peoples who live throughout West Africa.
The Mende are mostly farmers and hunters. During the civil war the Civil Defense Force (CDF), a militia group, was founded by Dr. Alpha Lavalie, a Mende himself, to fight the rebels along with government troops.
The forces included five groups drawn from all major ethnic groups in the country: Tamaboros, Hunters, Donso, Kapras, and the Kamajors.
Kamajor is a Mende term for hunter; they were not only the dominant warring factions but the most fearful among the CDF militias headed by late Deputy Minister of Defense, Chief Hinga Norman.
To date, the Kamajors are honored among the elite groups of men and women who fought to restore democracy in modern Sierra Leone.
The Mendes are divided into Kpa-Mende, who are predominantly in the South – in Moyamba district, the Golah-Mende, from the Gola forest between Kenema and Pujehun districts into Liberia – a national reservation landmark, Sewa-Mende, who settled along the Sewa River, Vai-Mende also in Liberia and Pujehun district, Sierra Leone and the Koh-Mende who are the dominant tribe in Kailahun district with the Kissi (Ngessi) and Gbandi both of whom are in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
The secret “Poro” society is for men while “Sande” society for women both of whom initiate the young into adulthood. Those who join either of the male or female secret societies are referred to as: The halemo are members of the hale or secret societies, and kpowa are people who have never been initiated into the hale. The Mende believe that all humanistic and scientific power is passed down through the secret societies.