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19th and 20th Century African Art: Bundu Mask

Identification

175. Bundu Mask. Sande Society, Mende peoples (West African forests of Sierra Leone and Liberia). 19th century to 20th century CE. Wood, cloth, and fiber

Context

Bundu masks, created in the 19th and 20th centuries in Sierra Leone, were crafted by men but worn by women during initiation masquerades. These masks represent the importance of women in Mende society, as well as the emphasis on adhering to the ideal of a young Mende woman. They portray the culture’s concept of aesthetic beauty and spiritual identity by using these masks to partake in ceremonies that bring girls into womanhood.

Ultimately, the Bundu masks impacted the history of art, especially African art, by popularizing the ideology that although women are heavily respected, they must abide by certain virtues that ensure the celebration of the idealized woman.

Content

This mask shows an ideal woman. Additionally, themes that can be found in this work are the Body, Ceremony and Society, There is so much symbolism in this style mask. For instance, the closed eyes and mouth show that the woman has already gone through childbirth, and so, she already has respect and is all-knowing. Even more, the white large eyes are a spiritual power from giving birth. Interestingly, the hairstyle just shows the fashion in the culture of the time. Additionally, this mask is stylized because it represents the culture of the tribe, and is also idealized because the features depict beauty standards for an idealized woman.

The masks depict a portrait of the ideal Mende woman, in tandem with a raffia-covered costume that performers can wear. The subject matter is absolutely idealized, portraying the traits of the ideal woman through her facial expressions. Themes present in the work include ceremony and society, domestic life, the body and portraits. 

In terms of iconography, the woman has various facial characteristics that convey an ideal. The small features and disproportionately large head display the importance of wisdom and thought process, the down-turned eyes represent the desire for a woman to be subdued, the rolls of fat under her chin convey the need for a woman to be able to bear children, and the small mouth and ears represent the idea that women should neither spread nor listen to gossip.

Poll

Would you want to go to a performance of these masks?
Yes: 139 votes (59.66%)
No: 94 votes (40.34%)
Total Votes: 233

Image

Image Map

Works Cited/ Resources

“Bundu / Sowei Helmet Mask (Mende Peoples).” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/africa-ap/v/sande-bundu.

“Helmet Mask (Bundu) | Mende Peoples | The Met.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I.e. The Met Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/310439.

Form

The Bundu masks were carved into wood and dyed dark with pigment. Some prominent visual and physical elements in these masks include surface texture, which gives the mask its smooth appearance and the raffia the implied texture; and shape, which lends to a mask with formidable height and an almost aerodynamic-looking curved exterior.

The artist utilized balance in crafting the mask pictured, outfitting the work with arches and indents that make the entire entity cohesive, as well as space, which make the mask very clearly three-dimensional with the intent to be worn.

Function

This mask is worn during masquerade rituals during the initiation of young women into the Sande society. Interestingly, this tribe is one of the few tribes that allow women to wear the masks. They wear these masks on top of their heads and then cover their faces with raffia. When these masks are not used during a ceremony, they are kept in the house of an elder woman of the Sande Society. 

These masks were created with the goals in mind of entertainment, decoration, beauty and storytelling. Although the artist is unknown, historians understand that men were the ones that created these masks for women to wear, and the work was originally intended for performance.

Vocabulary

  • Mende - a large ethnic group in Sierra Leone
  • Raffia - the fiber of the leaves of a species of African palm tree (in this case used to adorn the Bundu masks)