Monday, November 05, 2007

The Art of Women's Masquerades in Sierra Leone'

For many generations, the women's Sande association of the Mende peoples of Sierra Leone prepared young women for adulthood, marriage, motherhood and leadership roles in society. Masquerade performances featuring carved wooden masks, music, dance and theater signaled the ongoing stages of initiation to the community and celebrated the achievements of the initiates.

Twenty-six of these beautiful and highly symbolic masks, dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries, are featured in ''Fowler in Focus: The Art of Women's Masquerades in Sierra Leone," on display at the Fowler Museum at UCLA from Dec. 9 to April 27, 2008. Also on display are several examples of deliberately grotesque masks for beloved "clowns" who serve as comic counterparts during Sande initiations.

Sande is a rare example of an African masquerade performed by women. In the aftermath of the brutal war that took place in Sierra Leone during the 1990s, however, it is not clear whether Sande masquerades continue.

The masks on view pay tribute to a rich legacy of artistry that fuses spirituality and femininity with deep reservoirs of knowledge and power. Sande masks are called sowei — a name also given to the highest-ranked woman in Sande — and they display a wide range of motifs within a fixed stylistic framework. There is no limit to innovation, as long as the mask is a helmet form with a gleaming black surface, an elegant coiffure and an expression of inner spiritual concentration. Remarkable creativity characterizes the superstructures, facial features and adornment of the masks.

In counterpoint to the beauty and refinement of Sande ceremonies, other masquerades are characterized by satire, parody and humor. These men's gongoli masquerades overturn conventional decorum and mock other maskers, to the amusement and laughter of the audience. Four such masks are on display in this exhibition, with characteristic huge ears, gaping mouths and other comical features.

"Fowler in Focus: The Art of Women's Masquerades in Sierra Leone" will be on view in the Fowler in Focus gallery, the central space within "Intersectictions: World Arts, Local Lives." Fowler in Focus is dedicated to rotating installations of new acquisitions, subcollections and particular artistic genres in the Fowler's permanent holdings.

The Fowler Museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. and on Thursdays from noon to 8 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. The Fowler, part of UCLA Arts, is located in the north part of the UCLA campus. Admission is free. Parking is available for $8 in Lot 4. For more information, the public may call (310) 825-4361 or visit www.fowler.ucla.edu.

The Art of Women's Masquerades in Sierra Leone' opens at Fowler Dec. 9 / UCLA Newsroom