The Dancing Sowei: Performing Beauty in Sierra Leone

21 March–21 December 2018

Exhibition Overview

Helmet Mask (sowei or ndoli jowei)

This exhibition focuses on one spectacular work in the Cantor’s collection—a sowei mask, used by the women-only Sande Society that is unique to Sierra Leone. Used in dance by senior women of the society, the sowei mask symbolizes knowledge of feminine grace and is part of a young girl’s initiation into adulthood. Thus, for many women of the region, beauty is literally performed into existence through ndoli jowei (the dancing sowei or the sowei mask in performance). Take an in-depth look at a sowei’s aesthetic expressions of elegance, from its serene gaze of inner spirituality to the corpulent neck rolls that signify health and wealth—a beauty as defined and danced by women.

(Photo: Gola or Mende artist (Sande Society, Sierra Leone), Helmet Mask (sowei or ndoli jowei), 1920s-1930s. Wood, leopard tooth, kaolin, and fiber. Gift from the collection of Marc and Ruth Franklin, 2003.121)

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