In the Western world, airbrushed photos of Miranda Kerr dictate what beauty is. In West Africa, the Mende people use intricately carved wooden masks to communicate female aesthetic ideals.
Ten of these so-called Sande masks are on view at the National Museum of African Art as part of a new exhibit, “Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone.”
“For the Mende, physical beauty reflects inner beauty,” says exhibit co-curator Christine Mullen Kreamer. “It’s not about young people looking great in their 20s. It’s really about people over time contributing to society and thus being beautiful, no matter their phase of life.”
The beauty standards represented in the masks toe the line between the literal and the figurative.
For instance, women who have faint, light-colored lines on their necks are considered beautiful, and anthropologists have observed Mende women using thread to enhance them. In the masks, these lines are exaggerated so that the neck is divided into three or four rings, which indicate a divine essence much as the halo does in Western iconography.
By the same token, the masks’ bulbous foreheads represent intelligence and wisdom. A female chief might be perceived as having a prominent brow (even if she doesn’t), and women with high foreheads may be considered natural leaders, Kreamer says.
Mende women have a long history of taking on leadership roles, in part due to the centuries-old Sande societies. These groups include all of the adult women in a given village and use their collective power to protect and advance women’s interests. They also commission the masks.
At puberty, girls are initiated into a Sande society by spending upward of a year secluded in the forest, learning traditional values and skills. A masked Sande dancer might appear in the village at key moments in the girls’ initiation, such as when they are undergoing genital cutting, also known as female genital mutilation.
That practice, condemned by many human-rights groups, can result in cysts, infections, birth complications, psychological trauma and even death. According to UNICEF, 88 percent of women in Sierra Leone and 66 percent of Liberian women have endured the procedure.
Some Mende women find the Sande initiation to be a valuable experience, Kreamer says.
“The cliterectomy is just one element of Sande initiation, but women who have gone through Sande … focus less on that and on what the society is all about, which is female empowerment,” Kreamer says.
Do modern-day Sande societies oppress or empower women? It’s a question worth pondering while decoding the symbolism of the masks.
— The mask at left was made around 1960 by Ansumana Sona, a carver from Sierra Leone who leaned toward more naturalistic proportions.
— The mask completely encased the head of the performer, who looked out through small eye slits or down at her own feet. The fibrous costume is attached to small holes at the bottom of the mask.
— Dark, shiny skin signifies youth and good health.
— The mask, center, carved in the mid-20th century by an unknown Sierra Leone artist, features cowrie shells, which represent wealth, and small antelope horns, denoting medicinal skill.
— A long, ringed neck is a sign of great beauty among the Mende people. Scholars now believe the rings represent the ripples of water from which the female spirit emerges.
— A bulbous forehead represents intelligence, wisdom and political destiny.
— A carver named Kaiwa from Sierra Leone made the mask at right in the mid-20th century.
— Many Sande masks feature elaborate hairstyles that echo the shape of female genitalia. Complicated weaving and braiding patterns also give the sculptor the opportunity to show off his skills.
— Birds and snakes, which can move through multiple kinds of terrain, perhaps represent the ability to communicate messages from the human realm to the divine world.
National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW; through Aug. 17, free; 202-633-4600 (Smithsonian)