The most important mask in the Sande female society is the Bundu mask that represents both the ancestors, and the feminine ideal. This mask is sculpted by men, outside of the village in the bush, and it is worn by women. In effect, it is believed that the sculptor’s job is a dangerous as the masks represent the water spirits that inhabit the ancestors. The helm shape of the Bundu mask attracts the spirits of the river. Bundu masks have a diamond shaped face with a rounded forehead placed under a high coiffure with a very elaborate form. The face emerges from a wide neck, folded with rings superposed one on top of the other and that create puffy folds synonymous with prosperity. The mouth is tiny, a sign of obedience.
Here you can discover more information about Bundu masks and the Mende.
Socio-economic and Geographic Data about the Mende
The Mende live in Liberia, in Sierra Leone and on the west coast of Guinea.
The Mende are farmers that cultivate yams, cocoa beans, palm oil, rice and peanuts.
The chief of the lineages is the eldest and most able man. The family heads, who own land, distribute it to different members of the family. The village chiefs belong to the founding lineage and obey the king who intervenes solely in political matters.
Religious Beliefs of the Mende
The Mende believe in a God creator called Ngevo, but they do not make representations of him. The ancestors that live in the waters of the rivers and the spirits of nature play the role of intermediaries between man and God. They also have an impact on man’s prosperity. There are also diviners and witches among the Mende.
Religion is subordinate to the Poro society. This powerful association, present in other African countries, is responsible for the boys’ initiation. The initiation includes notably, a military training, and ends in great festivity. The dancers wear masks, but there are very few examples of masks from the masculine Poro society as they were mainly made out of leather and fur.
Exceptionally, women are allowed to enter the Poro society. The women have, in effect, their own society called Sande, responsible for teaching young girls everything they need to know before they get married. These retreats in the forest are as much for the Poro as for the Sande, a means of creating relationships between members of the same age group.
These societies serve to initiate and educate young people in the knowledge and respect of social rules. They also have a legislative role: they watch over the creation of these rules and over the good behavior of individuals. They have a judiciary role that consists of punishing any infringement of these rules and a therapeutic role to treat illnesses caused by the transgression of these rules and taboos.
Mende Masks and Statues
The most important mask in the Sande female society is the Bundu mask that represents at the same time the ancestors and the feminine ideal. This mask is sculpted by men, outside of the village in the bush, and it is worn by women. In effect, it is believed that the sculptor’s job is dangerous as the masks represent the water spirits that inhabit the ancestors. The helm shape of the Bundu mask attracts the spirits of the river. Bundu masks have a diamond shaped face with a rounded forehead, under a high coiffure with a very elaborate form. The face emerges from a wide neck, folded with rings superposed one on top of the other, and that create puffy folds synonymous with prosperity. The mouth is tiny, a sign of obedience. Bundu masks can be differentiated by their coiffure, styled with artistic talent and imagination. They are blackened with rotten leaves, and then covered in oil to create a beautiful glistening patina. Bundu masks have a sophisticated coiffure; in effect a tousled woman is synonym of a mad or immoral woman. The neck rings of the Bundu masks have several significations, notably: prosperity and feminine beauty (a fat woman is beautiful…), but also ripples on the water from where the mask emerges. Sometimes the mask is decorated with horns, which in the past were filled with magical substances and evoked the protection of horned animals. Bundu masks appear when the circumcised adolescents return from their retreat in the forest (part of their initiation). These masks suggest spirits favourable to fecundity and are worn by the women elders having achieved the highest grade in the Sande society. It is an honour to wear a mask. The dancer’s body is completely covered by her costume, made up of trousers and a long sleeved tunic. A raffia curtain hangs over the top of this tunic. It is tinted black and fixed to the base of the mask. The body of the dancer must not be seen by the spirit that she is incarnating (spirit of the ancestors or aquatic spirits) or else the spirit might grab hold of her.
There are also Bundu Janus masks, sometimes with four faces.
The Mande also sculpted rare statuettes with smooth round forms and a well finished patina that served to protect or to heal illnesses following the transgression of taboos. They can be recognized thanks to their large chest, the hands placed on the stomach, a long neck decorated with rings, a high rounded and triangular forehead and a coiffure of exaggerated proportions.