My introduction to the art of Sierra Leone went something like this: Despite the overwhelming presence of African headpieces in the worlds' museums, the masquerade tradition is not widespread across the continent. Of the limited regions in Africa where performances requiring wooden mask headpieces were and are practiced, it is generally a performance of men. Only in West Africa does a different tradition of masked dance take place, where women in Sierra Leone and Liberia are the primary singers and dancers in masquerade as well as the wearers and commissioners of their sculpted wooden masks (Phillips 1978: 265; Boone 1986; Lamp 2014). Among the Mende, Temne, and their neighbors, adults belong to organized societies—the Poro for men and the Sande (Bondo) for women—both of which serve as powerful political, social, and family entities.1 The Sande society organizes and hosts the women's masked performances, which are marked by elaborately carved wooden helmet masks. The masks, stained black, appear as part of a black fiber costume enveloping a woman's body. The whole manifestation of woman, mask, and costume is referred to as Sowo. The Sowo preside over a handful of important public events, the primary being the celebration at the end of girls' initiation into the Sande society, marking the end of their childhood and the beginning of their lives as adult women. Sowo also appear in public at weddings, funerals, and in litigation of cases where men are accused of criminal activity against women.
I am sure this sounds familiar to just about everyone who has learned about Sande masquerade arts. Only recently, though, as I was curating a tiny exhibition of African art for the Smith College Museum of Art, did I start to consider what is painfully absent from our visual narratives on Sande art: our understanding and appreciation of elderly women and their position as art patrons and performers of their own objects. Quite separately from the scholarly need to understand their role in the production of art, Sande/Bondo members have now found themselves victimized and disparaged due to the international debate over their initiation practices, which traditionally include genital modification of pubescent girls by female elders. The controversy over genital alteration, understood in Sande tradition to mark the death of childhood and the beginning of adult life, has come to rest on the objects used in public by the most senior Sande women and those appearing most frequently in our museums: their wooden masks.
Even though a mask in a museum is long divorced from the mature woman who may have worn it and was never worn while she was operating on girls, the mask has been proclaimed a tool by which elder women mutilated their children, and museums such as the Baltimore Museum of Art in Maryland and the British Museum in London have found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to defend their displays of Sande sculptures, while arguing they are not condoning “FGM.”
As most Sande activities are conducted in private, the helmet masks worn by the Sowo are the public face of Sande, viewed by the Mende during public appearances and subsequently by international museum-going audiences. I suspect that because the Sowo is the most important public representative of the Sande society, her mask has become a vector for contemporary concerns about Sande and its women. In addition, the mask wearers (if the mask was in use prior to its collection) are senior members of Sande, that is, older women. In Euro-American cultures—where the vast majority of art museums are situated—the older woman is understood to reside somewhere between the irrelevant and the obscene (Frueh 1994: 66, 70). That older women are empowered through Sande culture to dictate their own femininity and to thwart the norms of Euro-American society by shaping their daughters' genitals renders them out of bounds for acceptability (Silverman 2004: 429). Many Sande women are now refugees residing in Euro-American settings and are therefore subject to nationalistic and racialized condemnation as well.
MASKS AND THE MUTILATION DEBATE
For some time now, Sande has been active worldwide, largely as a result of the vicious civil wars in Sierra Leone (1991–2002) and Liberia (1980s-early 2000s). Both countries saw mass displacement of populations, horrific violence (including sexual) against women and children, and the forced conscription of child soldiers (Zack-Williams 2011; Coulter 2008; Human Rights Watch 2003). Sande survived in both countries because it moved with its members to large cities, such as Freetown and Bo in Sierra Leone and Monrovia in Liberia, when the countryside became too dangerous. Sande also traveled internationally, primarily to England and the United States, as women and children fled the conflicts as refugees. Just as the two African countries were beginning to stabilize in the early 2000s, the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014 created more devastation. In Sierra Leone, recent initiatives by museums, scholars, and activists at the international level have worked to support heritage projects—including reanimating the Sande and Poro societies—as a means to assist with the cultural and historical losses incurred in the largely devastated country.2 The unintended consequence of these efforts to document and preserve the contemporary activities and historical objects of Sande women has brought the sociopolitical debate about genital surgeries into the art museum.
Some women who underwent Sande initiation as children are now coming forward to condemn the practice's inclusion of genital alteration. The international audience has been quick to proclaim its outrage at “female genital mutilation” (FGM) and attempts to ban the practice worldwide are gaining traction (Mgbako et al. 2010; Mohamud, Radeny, and Ringheim 2006; World Health Organization, UNICEF, and United Nations Population Fund 1997). For example, in 2003, the UN declared February 6 to be “International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.” Regardless of one's stance on altering healthy genital tissue in children, the sociopolitical debate runs into its own hypocrisy on a regular basis. Euro-American societies comfortably grant their own mothers control over the genital alterations of their male children through circumcision, yet they have made it illegal for immigrant mothers to alter their daughters (Bell 2005: 127–28; Abu-Sahlieh 2006).3 Labiaplasty has become wildly popular in the United States as older women want to keep their vaginas looking “young” and as teenagers want to sculpt their own genitals. Nonmedical elective vaginal surgeries on teenagers are not prosecuted under anti-FGM laws already on the books in the United States, unless those teenagers are non-white immigrants.4
As the highly charged debate has arrived at the art museum, curators and art historians are feeling the pressure to take a stand, as museums are understood as sites of educational, institutional, and frequently cultural authority. Yet if museum professionals use their exhibitions of Sande art to condemn the practice of genital surgeries, they risk repeating the colonial practice of criticizing the “primitive” nature of the colonized in order to prove the “civilization” of the colonizing Empire. To issue blanket positivist support for the Sande society and its art objects discounts the very real testimonies of initiated women who find the process barbaric and have suffered from its effects. To ignore the debate altogether and focus only on the masks as art with a capital A is akin to the ostrich sticking its head in the sand. In all cases, the erasure of women and their bodies (in particular those of older women) from museum exhibitions of Sande art has perpetuated a narrative of youthful beauty, which unintentionally draws attention to initiation surgeries. It furthermore comes at the expense of narratives regarding middle-aged and mature women, the same women whose masks are now in museums.
THE WOMEN AND ART OF SANDE
At or slightly before puberty, Sierra Leonean and Liberian girls assemble into cohorts to go through Sande training together.5 The girls are removed from their families and society in general and are admitted exclusively to the company of adult Sande women for an extended period of time.6 Freed from their roles as daughters, sisters, and children, the girls can be literally reborn as women (Boone 1986: 45–79). Older women, therefore, are entirely in charge of defining the roles they hold in society and wish to cede to their offspring in future generations. Day has noted that “the separation of community responsibilities along gender lines assumes that women are the supreme authorities in their own sphere and that this sphere is of equal importance to that of men” (2012: 24). Sande indeed functions as a corporate body, capable of enforcing Sande laws, ensuring correct behavior on the part of men and women, and protecting women's interests (Day 2012: 24). This protection is one reason girls participate in its initiations. More importantly, girls only become adults after going through the challenging educational training directed by Sande leaders. Midwifery, women's health, political advocacy, and judicial oversight were/are the traditional occupations of the head Sowei, the woman who served/s as head of her town or region's Sande society. Women of lesser rank, or Ligba, are dance and voice instructors for the girls and often their surgeons. Ligba and other Sande members are tasked with teaching girls about puberty, sex, childbirth, cooking, and maintaining a household. Training also includes labor performed on behalf of the elder Sande women in order to teach the girls “modesty, diligence, and respect for one's seniors” (Phillips 1978: 267). In addition, Boone once argued convincingly that the physical beauty and sexual nature of women are critical pieces of female power in Mende society, and these attributes are actively taught by the older women to girls before and during Sande initiation (Boone 1986: 45–81). Her statements are echoed today in the work of Dr. Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, who points out that male initiation among the Poro regards the vagina as an object of “awe and deference,” while Sande women are taught to “dominate the penis” for pleasure and for reproduction (Ahmadu 2000: 16–17).
The wooden masks commissioned by Sande women depict the entirety of these processes from birth through adolescence, maturity, and ancestry. Commissioned by professional Ligba dancers and also by the head Sowei of each Sande chapter, the masks highlight such abstract characteristics as modesty, integrity, eroticism, and beauty, as well as the Sande spiritual realm. As there is a correlation between rank in Sande and a woman's age, only older women can commission and wear the high-ranking Sowei mask. A dancer's mask can be commissioned and worn by much younger members. As the masks themselves distinguish between old age and youth, they can help museums determine their own collection's bias towards youthful representation.
For example, the Smith College Museum of Art has a small but important collection of African art dating from the 1800s to the present, and they always have some of it on public view.7 One highlight is a Sande helmet mask, or sowo-wui (Fig. 1) carved ca. 1958 by Pessima, a master artist from Moyambawo, Sierra Leone. The headpiece is dramatic: parallel striations on the head imply a tightly braided coiffure, while snakes, a reptile, and a moveable bird decorate the top of the headpiece. The mask possesses a high forehead, small facial features, and two small slits carved between the chin and first ring of the neck to allow a wearer to see out. Pessima's headpiece exemplifies the ndoli jowei style of mask made for a professional Sande dancer of Ligba rank. From Phillips's (1995) and Boone's (1986) interviews with Mende men and women, we understand that the designs for the hair on Sande masks are elaborate variations on actual women's hairstyles. Young women prefer hairstyles involving fine, tight braids, often in elaborate patterns. Older women prefer a looser style, where the braids do not cling to the scalp and can number as few as three or four. This style, a sowo-bolo (sowo's cap), produces what Boone translated as “big hair” (Boone 1986: 184). The pattern of tight, V-shaped “braids” on Pessima's mask thus indicates youthfulness, and the mask celebrates the newly born adult Sande woman.
Compare Pessima's mask to one at the British Museum (Fig. 2), which displays a very different hairstyle: the “big hair” of an older woman and the eye slits for the wearer located at the center of the mask's eyes. Boone claimed that when a Sowei wore her mask, the “mask-head forms a Janus with the head of the human being inside; she, with her human eyes, has added to her all the power of the mask's eyes to see inside the spirit world” (Boone 1986: 176–77) The more powerful placement of the eye slits, allowing the wearer's eye to align with the mask's (rather than looking through eye slits placed in the neck, for example), along with the hairstyle indicates that this mask is most likely one of the highest rank, belonging only to a senior Sowei leader of the Sande society. Given that only older women achieve the rank of Sowei, this sowowui mask was the property of one of the oldest and most powerful women in her society.
I wrote the object label for Pessima's mask to focus on him as the artist, given that the mask was previously unattributed to him. I also briefly described the Sande tradition, but I did not draw attention to the mask's hairstyle as an indication of age or rank, in large part because the mask was carved on commission for a European and thus never worn by a Sande dancer.8 And the object I have signaled as the “older woman type” in the British Museum is not on display. Nothing is necessarily wrong with the Smith installation or the British Museum's mask being in storage; however, a stronger model is offered at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
In 2015 the Baltimore Museum of Art in Maryland completed an extensive renovation of its African art galleries. As the museum was in possession of a uniquely large collection of Sande helmet masks, curator Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch decided to open the African galleries with a display of twelve of them.9 This, she argued, was an important corrective for African art exhibitions that, in order to document the diversity of African art, display one object from each culture in order to represent as many cultural groups as possible.10 Gunsch, like many in the field of African art, is concerned that the “one object from each region” approach presents a skewed view of uniformity within cultures, as if one Sande mask could stand in for all of them over three centuries of creation.11 By displaying a dozen Sande masks of both Sowei and Ligba rank, the Baltimore exhibition introduced greater diversity than had ever been present in a US exhibition.
INITIATION IN EXHIBITIONS
In her otherwise positive review of the new African art galleries for the Baltimore Sun, Mary Carole McCauley, a reporter, found significant fault with the Baltimore Museum's display of Sande masks, stating, “Despite the charming touches, the masks are undeniably powerful and even frightening—as befits their role in a controversial female initiation ritual that has traditionally involved genital mutilation.” McCauley was upset that nowhere in the exhibition did the museum acknowledge that “Sande initiation rites have frequently included the widely condemned practice of female circumcision” (McCauley 2015). Her complaints prompted the museum's PR department to respond: “The curator chose to focus on the visual expression of the Sande society and the aesthetic value of the masks themselves rather than one aspect of the rite of passage for some members” (Anne Mannix-Brown, quoted in McCauley 2015). Gunsch was also concerned that nowhere else in the galleries did the museum deal with controversial anatomical modifications when exhibiting objects (i.e., their display of tiny silk shoes made for Chinese women with bound feet), and she did not want the African art galleries alone to bear that burden.12 A subsequent angry editorial on May 26, 2015, in the Sun, “Masking the Truth at the BMA: Exhibit Leaves out a Human Rights Violation Connection to the Exhibit,” prompted museum action at a higher level. The deputy directors for curatorial affairs and education posted a lengthy response on the BMA's blog, part of which reads:
Just this week, Nigerian president Goodluck Johnson signed a bill that criminalizes female genital mutilation or cutting … The practice is also on the rise in the US, where according to Newsweek, more than half a million women are at risk of undergoing the procedure or have already experienced it.13 How do we as viewers hold these stories—stories of beauty and creativity, culture and tradition, individuality and self-efficacy, pain and suffering—simultaneously? And what is the museum's role in negotiating and presenting multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings? (Fisher and Manning 2015).
I argue that the museum bears significant responsibility in how they exhibit their material, and they are in a position to actively present the multiple meanings held by their objects. One glaring problem with the FGM controversy at the Baltimore Museum, however, is the absence of older women in the debate. Clearly, girls who have undergone genital surgery have grown up to become women and subsequently senior citizens. And yet, as the case illustrates, the Sun and the BMA are focused on the surgical initiations of young girls. The international condemnation of FGM deals with older women only in order to condemn their desire to maintain initiation traditions and punish them for their roles as surgeons in the practice (Abusharaf 2006: 4, 7–8). Otherwise, the surgically adjusted bodies of older women are completely invisible in the narratives against initiation. In this international debate, the legitimacy of older women's own bodies is being invalidated and erased. The fact of having undergone genital surgery is used to ridicule women's bodies as victims of a patriarchal society, to discount women's ability (and desire) to experience sexual pleasure, and to invalidate the way they choose to bring up their own daughters (Shweder 2000). Very little attention, however, is paid to why adult women wanted or needed to go through Sande initiation. One initiated woman (who had genital surgery) commented, “It's a big shame if you are named as a woman that is not part of the [Sande] society. You need to be a part of it. If not you will just be like nothing.” Her friend (also a woman who had surgery as part of her initiation) agreed, saying, “It's like you're accepted now in certain parts of the society … you can talk where all the women talk, you can go where all the women go. You're allowed to go a lot of places, you're not ostracized” (Kalokoh 2017: 140).14
As Sande masks are produced for adult, initiated women like these two, one form of assistance museums can give to West African women is to display their stories in conjunction with their own objects. Museum displays should convey just as much about Sande elders and their bodies as they do about Sande youth. As scholars and museum professionals, we have not adequately confronted the absence of older women in museum displays (and not just older African women), and yet these same women were the patrons, users, guardians, and sellers of the very objects we present to the public. Part of the problem is that all the bodies are missing in our museum displays of Sande masks; we frequently only have the headpieces (not the entire masquerade costume), and those headpieces more often than not are representative of younger, not older, women.
SO WHERE ARE THE OLD WOMEN?
As museum collections often limit curatorial choices, we must remember that exhibitions of Sande art are curatorial theses, based on the relatively static nature of the collections that curators are tasked with displaying. We often learn more about the museum's collection history and that collection's relationship with the heritage of the country in which it sits than we do about the cultures/countries that produced the individual objects on display (Arvidsson 2011: 39, 70–71). In addition, the type of Sowei mask at the British Museum was rarely collected, given its spiritual and political importance to the Sande society as a whole. It is far more common to see the ndoli jowei style in museums, as these were more easily obtained by purchasing them from their female owners (who could then commission a new mask for themselves) or else directly from the artists themselves. Of the Baltimore Museum's masks, for example, over thirty are of the ndoli jowei type, while only four can be comfortably identified as Sowei. Fewer high-ranking elder masks in museums translates to the unintentional skewing of displays toward representations of younger women. As collections of historical material are unlikely to change much over time, exhibition of the collections also tends to experience the same inertia: items are locked into the past in which they were collected, leaving little room for the present day, or for present-day needs from certain objects (Arvidsson 2011: 69). In addition, the generally decreasing funding for new acquisitions of current works of art that could represent Sierra Leone, Liberia, or Sande/Bondo/Poro culture today further forces us to exhibit the Sande masks as “timeless,” since contemporary works by these artists is often not being acquired. We have to actively resist allowing a lack of funding to determine our exhibition choices. We know that expecting our nineteenth century masks to explain current-day Sierra Leone aristic (and sociopolitical) practice is unacceptable, and museum leadership needs to be held accountable for allowing stalled collection activity to determine the nature of African art exhibitions.
Perhaps the most critical problem for museums in their exhibition of Sande masks is that the Sowo (the entirety of woman, mask, and costume) is absent, thereby eliminating the bodies of the women who served as Sowo from consideration. Almost all exhibitions of Sande masks (or any African masks, for that matter) are therefore contingent on documentary photographs or videos that supplement the incomplete headdress with images of the full costume as worn and performed.
In all documented public appearances of Sande masks, the Sowo's mask and clothing completely conceal the woman underneath. This allows the Sowo to act on behalf of the entire Sande society and the ancestral/spirit worlds, not just as an individual. The mask plays only a small part in this bodily concealment. In fact, without the uniform the helmet mask is merely a wooden museum object, unrecognizable even to the Mende. Phillips records how she showed photographs of masks in museums to Sierra Leonean women and “found that the bare headpiece, deprived of its costume, ornaments, and dramatic impersonation, could become virtually unrecognizable as ndoli jowei. People would puzzle over these photographs and then offer a comment that amounted to a kind of disowning: “It might be a sowei, but it's not from here” (Phillips 2015: 19).
ABSENT BODIES, MISSING STORIES: THE COLONIAL LEGACY
The removal of the headpiece from its costume is largely a result of nineteenth century colonial practices of procuring masks for display in Europe. As the Sowo headpiece was carved (like a sculpture) in wood (an acceptable artistic medium) and, most importantly, figurative (although far more abstract than European art of the time), colonizers saw the mask as the creative product of an “other” culture. African masks were interesting to nineteenth century anthropologists and art historians (and hence museums) for what they might say about the gods, “fetishes,” “devils,” or even bodies (in the form of portraiture) of the indigenous populations of European colonies. The costumes associated with masks, however, were often made of impermanent materials like raffia, cloth, and seedpods or intangibles like body paint. These posed a problem for transportation, display, and conservation and were usually not collected in the first place.
This does not mean, however, that the costume was not of interest to colonial Europeans.15 In early records of the Sowo, the costume, wooden headpiece, and the woman wearer received fairly equal attention, a situation largely different from the subsequent museum fascination with the headpiece alone. T.J. Alldridge was one of the first Europeans to photograph the high-ranking mask worn as part of the Sowo ensemble, complete with a white head-wrap indicating the presence of a high-ranking Sowei underneath (Fig. 3). Alldridge served in various posts for the British Colonial government from the late 1870s through early 1900s and wrote some of the first accounts of the Sande published in Europe. His description of the Sowo, which he calls a “Bundu devil,” appears in all of them:
Her distinctive costume is unvarying … except as regards the headpiece … Her dress is of long shaggy fibre, dyed black, and over her head she wears a grotesque mask … I was also fortunate enough to obtain possession of a very fine specimen of a Bundu devil mask, which is now to be seen in the Ethnological Section of the British Museum (Alldridge 1894: 135–36).
Alldridge stresses his acquisition of the “devil mask,” not the “dress” or “costume” of the Sande medicine woman. While he has correctly determined that the British Museum would be interested in purchasing a wooden mask, he does not even bother to collect the rest of the ensemble, as he knew it would be problematic:
Civilization is making strides even in this most secret of native societies, for whereas formerly only country-cloth was used for leggings sewn up at the feet … today some of the devils may be seen wearing tan-coloured stockings peeping above the lace-up black boots or tan shoes which many of them now affect. I must admit that these modern things do not harmonise with the bulky fibrous costume, and considerably detract from the characteristic effect of this barbarous dress with which so much fetish and mystery is associated (Alldridge 1910: 223–24).
Alldridge and his colleague Harry Hamilton Johnston, writing from across the border in Liberia, both remarked their surprise that members of the Sande/Bondo society in the two countries would use men's pants (the “leggings” made of country cloth) as well as European pants, stockings, and shoes to conceal the legs of the Sowo (Fig. 4) (Johnston 1906: 1031). They were also entertained that the European top hat, a symbol of the well-to-do gentleman, was occasionally worn by high-ranking Sande women and even incorporated into the wooden helmet masks of Sande dancers (Fig. 5) (Alldridge 1913: 773). While Alldridge and Johnston both amassed collections of Sande helmet masks, neither made any effort to collect the costumes—parts of which were European and therefore contained no exotic value for museum display. The wooden mask with a European top hat, however, was a different story. The mask Alldridge speaks of selling to the British Museum wears a top hat and also has two identical faces, one on the front and one on the back, making it one of only a small number of Janus-faced Sande masks. While the appropriation of actual European goods was troubling to the supposed authenticity of Sowo costume, the artistic appropriation of European imagery constituted a fine discovery for Alldridge.
Distracted by their understanding of Mende women using men's clothing to perform a dialogue between the “African” and the “European,” Alldridge and Johnston missed the more relevant connection between the Sande and Poro, or male and female dichotomy embodied in the Sowo regalia. Mende women did not wear pants in Alldridge's time; their usurpation of men's clothing served as a not-so-subtle reminder of the Sowo's power to defend Sande women against men. By attaching a sculpture of a woman's head on top of black raffia fiber hung from men's clothing, the women in Alldridge and Johnston's photographs were marking their complete control over the spiritual and ancestral realms for men and women alike. Furthermore, as Day reminds us, warrior-chief skills were taught to men and boys in Poro, yet women were believed able to channel these skills in the face of pregnancy, birth, and defense of their families and fellow Sande women (Day 2012: 30). Often, in Alldridge's own time and still today, senior Sande women served/serve as equals to the paramount chiefs in their towns.
THE CONTEMPORARY EXHIBITION: WHY “FGM” BELONGS IN THE ART MUSEUM
Alldridge's refusal to collect the entire mask ensemble is symptomatic of what has been defined by scholars as an act of colonial violence: a forced separation of the bodies of the colonized from the artifacts of their own history (Savage 2008: 74). Historians and artists alike have critiqued the staging of a “decapitated” mask isolated in a vitrine or hung from a wall in a museum.16 Arguably, African masks in public collections not only serve as particularly poignant indexes of the historical violence enacted against the colonized themselves, but also the museum's discomfort in examining its own dependence on that colonial violence. As González astutely notes,
Museums worked to guarantee the meaning of cultural patrimony and, in many cases, colonial privilege for imperial nations. To change the museum and its forms of display was to question not only the validity of the power relations of the past but also the meaning of that past for those living in the present (2008: 66).
As a result, the colonial (and sometimes postcolonial) record of collection continues to influence the exhibition and display of Sande headpieces in the present day. The masks in museum collections display the collection history of the late nineteenth century and its conceptions of class, gender, and race (Werner 2011: 15). They record more accurately the views of T.J. Alldridge and his contemporaries than they do those of nineteenth century Sierra Leonean culture, or Sande society today. Therefore, we struggle to find productive means to work beyond, around, or through the colonial histories of the objects on display in order to find their contemporary relevance.17 This legacy has been almost impossible to disrupt, leaving curators and museum educators today in the situation of constantly narrating colonialism in order to arrive at a moment where a contemporary story can exist.
A recent exhibition at the British Museum attempted a corrective exhibition by placing Alldridge's top-hat-wearing mask on display, surrounded by information about its nineteenth century collection and documentation interwoven with contemporary videos and photographs from Sierra Leone and the Sierra Leonean diaspora in London. Members of Sande living in London were invited to assist in educational programming, but they ended up contributing much more to the exhibition. The Sande women insisted that the ratty raffia fringe attached to the headpiece be thrown out and new fringe attached to the mask. They further insisted that the mask be properly named. When Alldridge procured the mask, he had not known that all Sande masks are individually named by their owners, so he did not record that information. The Sande women therefore held a naming ceremony and then regifted the now properly named and attired mask to the British Museum (Kart 2017: 896).
The goal of the exhibition Sowei Mask: The Spirit of Sierra Leone was to use one single object and retrace its history from its carving to its contemporary exhibition.18 This placed the object in a chronological and temporal continuum, where it could serve as a mediator between past and present, diaspora and homeland. The fact that the mask had two faces and wore a European hat provided co-curator Paul Basu “with an opportunity to explore the entanglements of European and African culture during the colonial era (including the bidirectional material flows as embodied in the mask's design).”19 He further stressed,
In the display we wanted to present a plurality of “framings” of the mask—as ethnographic object, art historical object, an object entangled in cultures of colonialism, as postcolonial national icon, and to juxtapose it with an audiovisual presentation which showed such masks animated as part of masquerade performance rather than static art objects.20
Of primary concern to Basu was discussing Alldridges role in bringing the object out of Sierra Leone so that the colonial history of the object could finally be acknowledged.
And yet three years after the exhibition opened, the British Museum drew the ire of Anna Davis and Alimatu Dimonekene, for exhibiting a “devil” mask (notice the reanimation of Alldridges colonial language).21 Davis, writing for a free urban circular, the Evening Standard, titled her article “British Museum Accused of ‘Celebrating’ FGM by Displaying Cutter's Mask.” In it she wrote that women like Dimonekene were “survivors of FGM living in London [and] said they still suffer flashbacks to the mask, which they said is used at the end of cutting ceremonies in Sierra Leone to terrorise young girls into keeping quiet about their ordeal” (Davis 2016).
This is why a more conservative approach usually prevails, such as the one taken by Smith College and the Baltimore Museum, where Gunsch and I focused on the artistry of the Sande masks. Yet the seemingly necessary corrective presence of contemporary context in the exhibition of historical objects was also heavily criticized. While the Baltimore Museum was targeted for “papering over the reality [of FGM]” by not presenting a contemporary narrative along with its display of Sande masks (Baltimore Sun 2015), the British Museum exhibit was criticized for the exact opposite. Davis argued that the British museum “celebrated” female genital surgeries in part because of the involvement of Sande women living in London who condoned the mask and its place in their own history.
My concerns for the girls and women who are part of the Sande initiation debate parallel those for the institutions who possess and exhibit the historical objects of Sande women. Both situations revolve around the notions of “young” and “old” where complex past processes are maintained into the present day. The formerly unquestioned use of genital excision to mark a young girl's passage into adulthood now finds itself defined in parts of the globe as barbaric, where a 44-year old Sierra Leonean, F.A. Cole, accuses her father of deceit for allowing her to be mutilated by “witches” (Cole 2017). The hard-fought battles by curators to acknowledge and correct wrongs of older ethnographic displays of “primitive art” have been declared ignorant of the need to protect the human rights of young girls like Cole.
While the concerns about genital surgeries are not for the museum to resolve, it can certainly be a proactive partner for Sande women from within the educational, social, and cultural realms in which museums are located. For museums with Sande art objects in their collections, I have suggested already that the inclusion of a fuller Sande narrative that disrupts the traditional focus on youth and girls at the expense of maturity and age is one possibility. Others follow from scholars in museum education, and there are good takeaways from the experimental exhibition at the British Museum and the display of multiple masks at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Garoian's theories of performative museums coalesce with Basu's projects of cultural reanimation and González's critique of the museum apparatus (Garoian 2001; Basu 2015; González 2008). All three strongly argue for an “enfleshment” of the objects themselves in the present day, facilitated by the intertwining of actual bodies of viewers with objects in the gallery, so that both become knowledge producers, bearers of historical responsibility and co-curators of exhibition knowledge.22 While not celebrated as such by the media, the British Museum's engagement with the Sande society in London proved such “enfleshments” are possible and powerful. In a similar manner, Sande women in diaspora are talking back to the past experiences of themselves, their mothers, and their grandmothers in order to question a tradition that by its very nature is designed to empower women to speak back to power.
As witnessed in the case of the Sande society in London intervening in the British Museum's presentation of a Sande mask, Sande women in diaspora have greater access to the museums housing the objects of their foremothers. Sande women in Sierra Leone, however, have greater access to the Sande society. The two groups' experiences have been converging in social media such that opinions not favorably received in England, such as @Mami_Na_Pawa's active support of circumcision,23 can be safely aired in the global digital arena. Similarly, a young girl, Fatmata, who refused to go through Sande initiation in Sierra Leone, was able to find support for her cause in the international voices of other women backing her up (Ahmadu 2020). Social media further allows for public discussions and the wide dissemination of scholarly research into socio/politico/medical arguments for and against Sande initiation and genital modification. Anthropologist Fuambai Ahmadu, for example, posts all of her scholarly writing publicly online, where it can be as freely accessed as anti-FGM literature.
Access to knowledge is, after all, what museums pride themselves on doing so well. The scholarly group who produced sierraleoneheritage.com in order to bring cultural heritage back into local consciousness in Sierra Leone was formed by museum professionals. But just building websites is not a solution. Museums can do more to partner with Sande women across digital platforms as they plan and execute new exhibitions. We can ask honestly what Sande women want and need to see in an exhibition of their historic objects before we even go into the basement of the museum to see what we have in storage. If we understand technology as a tool able to connect scholarly and public debate in a virtual space, the museum can offer a real-world location for this connection to occur in person.
Museums therefore should embrace their unique position as real-world contact zones for contemporary audiences and the contemporary meanings of objects for these audiences. As defined by James Clifford (1997: 192–93), the “contact zone” was a metaphor for the museum's role in negotiating between the colonial empire and the rest of the world it collected and to which it subsequently compared itself. The “contact zone” was a powerful tool for curators and art historians alike and it assisted scholars in the postcolonial period to reconstruct what had been lost/taken from African art objects during colonialism in order to acknowledge a painful past.
More is required for today's interconnected audiences. The contact zone now must now redefined as the point of connection between the contemporary viewer and an object existing in shared contemporary and virtual space. Along with their historical pasts, objects like Sande masks maintain ongoing histories, and these need adequate expression in museum contexts. Just as the meanings of Sowo headpieces shifted along their routes from making to use to colonial collection to public display, we must not assume that their postcolonial meanings are now absolute. Appadurai has argued that the “social life” of an object represents what an object from the past is understood to mean for its present audiences (Savage 2008: 79). Thus, for Sarian Kamara, a nineteenth century top-hat-wearing mask in the British Museum is the contemporary “face of the cutter,” as she demands it answer for its role in current social practices.24 For Ahmadu, being circumcised is a symbol of her pride in being Sierra Leonean and part of her identity that she must constantly defend to an international audience that sees her body as “mutilated” (Ahmadu 2019).
Garoian suggests that, instead of seeking historical absolutes in objects, we should understand that “works of art represent the potential to dialogue with history” and viewers have the ability to “challenge the monologic pedagogy of museums” despite the “unpredictability of visitor responses and narratives” (Garoian 2001: 236). Knowledge making that occurs in dialogue between object, institution, and visitor creates a museum that is an “integral part of community life” (Garoian 2001: 238). This means that if we desire the museum to be an interpretive space where we encourage viewers to participate in exhibitions, we discuss genital altering of children in public. When we invite the visitor to share her history, it may be one of FGM and of the horrific consequences it has had and continues to have. It may include the abuses by some women of the initiation tradition for money or influence. It may stem from concerns of patriarchal control over women's sexuality. But it may also include experiences by those who have chosen to go through genital surgery, or those who are fervent supporters of Sande, who cannot imagine being a woman without being Sande.
The Sande masks speak to all these histories; all of these narratives are true even as they seem to stand in opposition. This is why we must let go of our positivist and preservationist strategies that prioritize an aesthetic point of view, a linear history, a meaning based only on the original use-context for a Sande mask. The objects themselves contain fully contradictory meanings. For one, they are not just about the initiation of young girls, they are about the sexual maturity of women and the public performance of that sexuality in front of other women, men, and boys. The Sowo brings the past of the ancestors and spirits firmly into the present when she dances, but also when her headpiece is on view in a museum. The presence of the past in our current space creates a contemporary legitimacy for middle-aged and older Sande women. The masks point out how older women still maintain an important and, in fact, insurmountable presence in social and political life, and how Sande protects their autonomy as women.
Where the Baltimore Museum began by displaying multiple masks, we can now go further. We need to discuss Mende women as art patrons; we should speak about how older women started an art market that came to encompass the desires of the entire colonial world and collectors of African masks ever since. We need to continue researching the provenance of our collections: whether the masks on view were bought from Mende women or from carvers, traders, or middlemen. We already display the colonial violence of collecting through the exhibition of masks long removed from their costumes and women wearers; therefore we can work to interpret the parallel narratives of violence against women and girls for those who need to hear that narrative. And, we can discuss the significance of genital surgery and how, without it, women in Sierra Leone are not considered women; that the struggle by older women to keep the tradition alive is not a struggle to undermine women's sexual pleasure, but a struggle to ensure young girls a place of power in adult society. Female genital excision draws its value in part from how it is understood to create women. To deny its importance is to deny the richness of being both Sierra Leonean and an adult woman. The surgery indeed signifies many aspects of Mende women's lives: the fear of adolescence, the joy of sex, the realities of marriage, childrearing, polygamy, childbirth, divorce, menopause, the harsh conditions of entrenched female poverty, and the disorienting effects of living in exile/diaspora/contemporary global society.
As global citizens we can certainly advocate for change, for a reexamination of the process of woman-making that depends on genital surgery, and we can certainly advocate for more choice on the part of women to experience initiation. By bringing constituents together in actual spaces in a museum environment, museums can provide audiences with a real-world location in which to engage in mutual conversation over our shared objects—the outcome being that active debate happens in a public space: the realm of the Sowo, the realm of the Sande mask.
When we ask viewers for their opinion and to share their experiences, we add them to the sum total value and meaning of the exhibition and, of course, to the masks themselves. The activism of Sande women today should spur us—the curators, art historians, and museum goers—not just to examine the wrongs committed during the colonial period but also to confess how much of that period we have pulled forward into the present, at the expense of making room for present-day needs and narratives—i.e., What art are Sande women patronizing today? What are they buying? What artists do they support? Why are we not exhibiting that? As we have seen, Sande women are actively engaged with each other online and face to face, in and out of diaspora. They should have access to their society's objects, especially those in public collections, to use as they see fit. The sowo-wui have always served as the public face of Sande, as the vector for communication, as the catalyst for life-changing events in women's lives. We need to let the masks do exactly what they were commissioned to do: place women into the public sphere and empower them to act.
I wish to express my deep thanks to Director Jessica Nicoll and the curatorial staff at the Smith College Museum of Art, and to Drs. Paul Basu and Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch for sharing their experiences with me. I am also grateful to Costa Petridis, who read an early version of this essay, and to my anonymous peer reviewer at African Arts who contributed fundamentally to the strength of this article. All errors and misstatements, of course, are my own.
Sande is the name for the society in the Mende language. Among the neighboring Temne, and related groups just over the border in Liberia, it is called Bondo, and the terms are used interchangeably. My arguments here incorporate the display of masks relating to women of all cultures who participate in Sande/Bondo, whether in West Africa or in diaspora. My use of “Sande” throughout this essay, therefore, is shorthand for Sande/Bondo.
An international project by museums, professors, and individuals created the website sierraleoneheritage. org. The site uses museum object databases, interviews, videos, and documentary to connect contemporary individuals with past practices (see Basu 2015). Also see the discussion of exhibitions involving Mende collaborators in Phillips (2001: 71–73).
This data is from multiple sources. See for example Abusharaf 2006; Bell 2005; American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Committee on Gynecologic Practice 2020)
Along with the Mende and Temne, neighboring groups in Sierra Leone and Liberia such as the Temne, Gola, Kono, Sherbro, Vai, and others also send their girls to Sande/Bondo training.
Over generations, Sande has had to change its traditional isolation period. The society now allows for multiple training sessions during school vacations and allows younger girls to participate at the same time as their older sisters.
I curated the installation Object Histories: From the African Continent to the SCMA Galleries, which ran August 2018–June 2020. Christa Clarke was retained to curate the next, and thankfully larger, public installation that was scheduled to open in summer 2020. While I was researching the Sande mask at Smith, I discovered the artist (previously unknown) thanks to an article by Paul Basu featuring a photograph of the Smith mask at the feet of Pessima and his wife (Basu 2011: 35). The timeline correlated to when the owner of the Smith mask had been in Sierra Leone and obtained the mask from Guy Massie-Taylor, a British art teacher and patron of Pessima.
The Smith mask was commissioned from Pessima by Guy Massie-Taylor, who from 1956–63 amassed a highly regarded collection of Sande masks, most of which were purchased upon his death by the Kelvin-grove Art Gallery (now the Glasgow Museums).
The Baltimore Museum has over thirty-five Sande/Bondo masks from the late nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries in its collection.
Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, interview with author, Accra, Ghana, August 11, 2017.
Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, email with author, September 6, 2017.
Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, interview with author, Accra, Ghana, August 11, 2017.
This is somewhat of a bait and switch, as Newsweek attributes the rise in genital surgeries to increased immigrant populations from “African and Middle Eastern countries” (Wescott 2015).
These women are identified as participants B and C in Nennah Kalokoh Kalokoh's 2017 dissertation on how women in Sierra Leone experienced and understood genital surgery as part of their initiation through Sande/Bondo.
In a slideshow for the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Alldridge displayed the photograph included here as Figure 3. The meeting minutes noted the audience's fascination: “The native customs of Poro and Bundu and the Bundu Devil, also the Tasso men, were extremely particular, the costumes being beyond imagination” (Alldridge 1899).
Fred Wilson has made a career out of creating installations that expose colonial and exhibitionary violence (González 2008: 64–119).
Arvidsson notes nineteenth century European museums were “officially charged with representing the nation's cultural history” (emphasis mine). In so doing, the objects became part of the history of the colonial empire, not the history of the people and the objects that were colonized (Arvidsson 2011: 39–41, 45).
The strategy of using a single mask as the focus of an entire exhibition was also used by curator Amanda Maples in her exhibition The Dancing “Sowei”: Performing Beauty in Sierra Leone, which ran at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, from March 2018–April 2019. That exhibition did include information on female genital surgery as a contested worldwide practice, along with its focus on beauty as taught by older women to younger ones. To my knowledge, it has not been criticized in the press for its handling of female genital surgeries as have the other exhibitions I cite here.
Paul Basu, email to author, June 30, 2017.
Paul Basu, email to author, June30, 2017.
Dimonekene was initiated in Sierra Leone when she was 16 and has since become an activist for ending the practice. She called the mask at the British Museum a “Bando Devil” (Davis 2016). I wish to add that she uses the word “devil” to intentionally disparage the object and vilify its non-Christian status. This is not the same as those who use the term “devil” as a way of coopting the colonial language to take back the derogatory name for positive use, as is often the case in Sande/Bondo/Poro tradition today.
The language of “intertwining” and “enfleshment” is from Merlo-Ponty, cited in Garoian 2001: 240.
Pawa's Instagram bio reads “Challenging anti-FGM propaganda. We are initiated, not mutilated. OUR bodies. Our cultures. Our choice.”
Kamara is a Sierra Leonean activist against genital alteration, cited in Davis 2016.