Earlier this week, the Baltimore Sun published an editorial on an important and controversial issue—female circumcision (sometimes referred to as female genital mutilation)—and its relationship to a group of Sande Society helmet masks on view in the BMA’s new African art galleries. The masks are worn by senior Sande Society women in Liberia and Sierra Leone during initiation ceremonies for young girls that mark their transition into adulthood.
Like most museum objects, the helmet masks tell multiple and complex stories. For example, their refined carving and harmonious design demonstrate the incredible variety, innovation, and artistic excellence of their makers. Displayed together––as they are in the BMA––the masks counter the prevalent notion of African art as static and uniform.
A second story highlights concepts of idealized female beauty within the Sande Society and the individuality of the masks’ patrons. The broad forehead represents character and wisdom while the sensuously ringed neck signifies fertility and good health. Narrow eyes show focus and introspection and suggest demure behavior, while sealed lips indicate an ability to keep secrets. The smooth, glossy black surface not only evokes good health and grooming but also refers to the dark forest streams in which spirits reside. The elaborate coiffure serves as a personal statement of style and a reflection of social prestige. While all Sande Society masks carry these standard features, each is highly individualized according to its patron’s taste. One mask wears glasses and earrings while others are adorned with birds, cooking pots, cowrie shells and other symbolic motifs that refer to Sande traditions, proverbs, or teachings. In Africa where masks are typically a male tradition, the helmet masks speak to the power and artistic influence of women in the Sande Society.
Yet another narrative addresses the social and cultural context of the masks. Masks like these are performed at masquerades during significant civic events in society including funerals, honoring important visitors, and the initiation of young women into adulthood. A centuries-old tradition, during the initiation process senior members instruct young initiates in their roles as women: proper sexual behavior, childbearing, and child rearing. Some initiations also include the removal of some or all of the external female genitalia, an operation that is seen by some as a sacred rite of passage and by many others as a human rights violation. Some societies have stopped this practice of their own accord or because the country has made it illegal, in some cases to help stem the spread of the ebola virus.
Female circumcision has been a topic of international discussion. Just this week, Nigerian President Goodluck Johnson signed a bill that criminalizes female genital mutilation or cutting. According to the World Health Organization, more than 125 million girls have experienced female circumcision, to varying degrees, in the 29 countries where this procedure is concentrated. The practice is also on the rise in the U.S., where according to Newsweek, more than half a million woman are at risk of undergoing the procedure or have already experienced it.
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? How do we tell balanced stories that address both the artistic context and potential contentious human experiences that these objects touch? How do we share controversial information without feeding into negative stereotypes or narrow frameworks often associated with African cultures? These are some of the questions BMA staff are grappling with as we strive to be a responsible, reflexive, and relevant museum.
Works of art embody multiple, complex, and sometimes difficult narratives that span the spectrum of human experience. They speak of beauty and joy, pain and sorrow, love and loss—often at the same time. As stewards of cultural heritage, museums are uniquely positioned to provide a space for inquiry, reflection, and dialogue on important historical and contemporary issues.
Much thought, research, and consultation with experts went into the presentation and interpretation of the Sande Society helmet masks. Our discussions have included how to provide information about the masks that highlights their artistic value and how to provide broader insights about the culture from which they came that extends beyond this one practice. We have also discussed the best format to use in presenting the information. Museums have a variety of tools at their disposal, from printed wall texts, workshops, and lectures to newer technologies and social media.
With every exhibition our goal is to provide accurate, complete, and accessible information on works of art and the ideas that surround them, and at the same time honor the interpretations and narratives that our visitors bring to their experiences with objects. We are taking a closer look at how we present information about the Sande Society masks and other challenging issues in art throughout the museum in order to create the best possible experience for all our visitors. As we work toward finding new and better ways of communicating difficult information, we welcome your response to the questions below.
- What role should art museums play in presenting difficult historical and contemporary issues?
- How can we address the different stories that objects can tell us?
We appreciate your interest in the BMA and hope to see you in the galleries.
Jay Fisher, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs
Anne Manning, Deputy Director for Education and Interpretation