The Mende ethnic society is located in the South Western part of Sierra Leone. The main occupation there is farming. The Mendes have organized themselves into kingdoms and autonomous villages and towns ruled by chiefs. The chiefs’ exercised limited power because the secret societies there exercise greater authority over the political and social life of the people. The Mendes believed in God as the creator. They practiced magic and also believed in ancestors, animism, sorcery, and witchcraft.
The Mendes engaged in the production of various works of art. The visual art forms include sculpture, jewelry, body arts and textiles. The sculptural works include the Bundu masks, Sowie masks, Minsereh figures, and statuettes. The body arts included body painting, marks, and coiffure with various hairstyles. They engaged in weaving while the women spun the cotton threads, the men wove the fabrics on looms. They also engaged in verbal arts such as songs, dance, poetry, and storytelling.’
The Bundu masks and its parts refer to ideals of female beauty, morality, and behavior. It has a high broad forehead signifies wisdom and success. The neck ridges are signs of beauty, good health, and prosperity. It also symbolizes a moth chrysalis, the transformative stage in a butterfly’s life from a worm to a flying creature that is similar to a young woman’s initiation into womanhood. It also has an intricately woven or plaited hair that is the essence of harmony and order found in an ideal Mende household. A small closed mouth and downcast eyes indicate the silent and serious facial expression expected of new initiates. The surface of the mask is coated with a glistering black substance as a form of finishing. The masks symbolize the adult women’s roles as wives, mothers, providers for the family, and keepers of medicine for use within the Sande association and the Mende association as a whole.
The Mendes also produced the Nomoli or Pomdo stone carvings, carved out of soapstone. The Mendes believe that the stones are the representations of the people who lived in the region before they came to the area and the people have a ceremony around the stones where they treat them as former chiefs and kings of the region.
These marvelous artistic creations were essential in undertaking the everyday life activities of the people. For example, the women wore the Bundu mask together with a costume of black raffia during the initiation rites of the females. The masks conceal them from the audience attending the performance. The women leaders who wear these masks dance to a song from drums during the initiation ceremony. They serve as priestesses and judges during the three years of the training. They serve as teachers and mentors helping the young girls with their transformation into educated and marriageable women. These masks are not discarded, but rather they are repaired and reused after each initiation ceremony. Also, the Nomoli figures were used for ancestral veneration. The Minsereh figures are used by the women prophetesses for healing and divination.
Therefore, the culture of the Mendes was cleverly and skillfully portrayed using the various forms of art. This shows that art is very paramount in the development of humans and as such is a powerful vehicle for unveiling the cultural life of ethnic societies and nations.