Mende Helmet Mask (ndoli jowei) by the Master of Nguabu, Sierra Leone
- Height: 15 1/2 inches (39.4 cm)
Peter-Michael Boyd, Seattle
Robert and Lillian Bohlen, Brighton, acquired from the above
Sotheby's, New York, May 16, 2008, lot 108, consigned by the above
Myron Kunin, Minneapolis, acquired at the above auction
The Mende term ndoli jowei means "expert in dance" and is the term used for the individual who performs with the principal mask of the women's society known as the sande. This type of mask is more frequently, and less accurately, known as a "Sande" or "Bundu" mask. In 1935, the German ethnographer Ralph Eberl-Elber photographed and described an ndoli jowei mask for the sande society in the Mende region of Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, Eberl-Elber did not publish the specific location in which he saw the mask.
Thirty-seven years later, Ruth Phillips photographed another mask in the town of Nguabu in Kaiyamba chiefdom, Moyamba district, in the far western area Mende region of Sierra Leone. Every ndoli jowei mask has a personal name known in the community but rarely recorded by researchers or collectors. Phillips identifies the mask from Nguabu as "Kaki Bobi" (Brassiere). The mask is strikingly similar to the one photographed by Eberl-Elber as well as the one from the [Kunin] Collection.
The facial features including the ears, nose and mouth are virtually identical, but it is the treatment of the eyes in which the eyebrows are indicated by arcs of incised lines that is especially noteworthy. The neck rings and the flanged rim to which the costume is attached are also treated in an identical manner.
Unfortunately, the name of the carver is not known. Undoubtedly he was commissioned by the sande in many different towns and it is not certain where he actually lived. Nevertheless, he was clearly a prolific and masterful carver. Consequently, at least until his name or the name of the town in which he lived can be identified this author has chosen to identify him as the "Master of Nguabu".
The corpus of works by this artist numbers well over two dozen pieces including two examples that entered the British Museum collections in 1943. Others at the Fowler Museum originally came from the Welcome Collection and were probably collected at about the same period. Masks by the Nguabu Master were still being used well into the 1970's. It seems likely that this artist was active during the 1920's to the 1940's.
William C. Siegmann (1943-2011), Brooklyn
(First published in Sotheby's, New York, May 16, 2008, p. 170; republished with permission of the Estate of William Siegmann)