African art combines the visual image with spiritual beliefs and social purpose. As an art object, the mask is a piece of sculpture that represents the cultural attitudes embodied in the meaning or content of the object. The image of the Sowei mask, carved in wood as most African masks, is an example of an anthropomorphic mask. As sculpture, the mask is three-dimensional and usually carved from one whole piece of wood using a special tool, an adze, to create the basic shape.
Although maskers are generally men, this mask is worn over the head of a female elder of the Sande womenÆs society. The mask is both representational (a young woman) and symbolic. Masks may represent spirits such as ancestor spirits, or an ideal. The Sowei mask represents the ideals of female beauty and virtue of the Mende tribe of Sierra Leone and Liberia, and communicates the aesthetics of that particular group. The Sowei mask has a smooth surface, signifying youthfulness. According to Susan Vogel, a youthful appearance is a key element of the African aesthetic, indicating vigor, fertility, productiveness and the ability to labor. The lustrously, smooth black surface of the mask connotes shining, healthy skin that symbolizes female beauty and moral purity. Youthfulness represents good while old age and deformity represent evil and a flawed morality according to Mende beliefs.
Moral virtue and purity are represented by the maskÆs lowered eyes indicating restraint, the composed expression indicating inner serenity, and the smooth, broad forehead indicating a noble nature. All features are exaggerated.
The bird figure on top of the coiffure has many symbolic and mythological meanings including clairvoyance, love, fertility, power, danger, discipline, prudence and laughter (African Art: Aesthetics and Meaning). African aesthetics generally has a moral basis, and in many African languages the same word is used for ôgoodÆ and ôbeautiful.ö The intent...