Art and Initiation in Liberia and Sierra Leone

March 6, 2003 @ 10:00 am – 11:30 am
Goethe Room
California Academy of Sciences
55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118

A Lecture

by William Siegmann

Reviewed by Jerry Jacob

William (Bill) C. Seigmann’s insightful slide lecture on the Art and Initiation ceremonies of the Sande and Poro Societies of Liberia and Sierra Leone was not only fascinating, it was an impromptu “homecoming” for the   former Curator of The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Seigmann, now Chair of the Department of Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, shared his recollections, insights and extensive research findings with a full house of FEA members and their guests.

The Mende peoples of Western Liberia and Sierra Leone number near a million. Almost all of them are initiated into either the Sande/Bundu, (Female) or Poro (Male) secret societies. The more powerful women’s Sande’ Society is unique in African  culture: women actually wear and dance masks. The two mask forms used in Sande’ rites are the more familiar helmet mask Sowei/Ndole Sowei (Sowei means spirits of fecundity) and the Gonde-Gonde, which serves as a relief and is sometimes a re-carving of the no longer empowered Sowei mask. Gonde is considered a shameless hussy, provocative and comic. Gonde is typified by grotesque exaggerated features. The gifts bestowed upon her are given to the Majo or elder woman of the society who has control over the “hale” or medicine. The Majo is the teacher and ultimate power figure of the Sande’ and is shown great respect and deference for her maternally inherited status.

The traditional convention of the Sowei mask is a bulbous forehead overarching small eyes, a glossy black surface with intricate scarification which symbolizes the smooth, healthy skin of the young women, while a narrowing triangular face leads the eye to the diminished chin. The neck of the mask is large, encircled with many rings symbolizing rolls of flesh or water ripples reminiscent of those caused by the emergence of the newly reborn initiate. Decoration of the mask is highly individual and is taken from traditional cultural icons as well as from outside images found in the modern world – one example features a rendering of Queen Victoria’s Crown, taken from a coin.  Decoration, coiffure, adornment, scarification and costume are all honored as a means of setting humans apart from animals.

Part of the women’s initiation includes the controversial practice of clitoridectomy, now performed by nurses or other medical practitioners. Seigmann cited a nurse who said that she had learned how to cause major blood flow while doing little actual “damage” to the initiates.

The male initiations follow a parallel path. Women’s initiation and life cycles are counted in threes, men’s cycles in sets of fours. The men’s “Poro” Society is one of the most sacred organizations among the Mende’ and by western standards, this institution is equivalent to an academic and a military    institution. As with the Sande’ society the concept of death of childhood and rebirth as an adult informs the symbolism and ritual. Children do not only learn the basics that they need to survive in life, but the values of the society are drilled into them. Originally boys were totally isolated from their mothers for  periods ranging from one to four years. Now the secret process takes four months.

At the beginning of the initiation ceremony the appearance of the Landai mask summons the young initiates into the forest to a retreat area especially  prepared for them. At the end of the initiation period the Landai mask is brought out again to spiritually devour the initiates in order that they may be reborn. The wooden mask is defined by a stylized jaw representing a crocodile, human eyes, and an often-decorated brow surmounted by a feathered or horned headdress. The Landai mask represents a bush spirit.

Upon the rebirth of leaving the camp both women and men are as infants and sit on mats while the elders again teach them how to speak, eat and conduct life as adults. The end of initiation is marked by a carnival-like celebration in which the men are permitted to cross-dress and mock the women and the elders.

This fascinating and informative lecture was followed by a lively question and  answer period.