Although a rather foreign looking ensemble in the western world, the Bundu Costume bears connotations of femininity, fertility, and regard for the common good. The costume is used in the women’s Bundu or Sande Society in Africa found across groups in Guinea, Siera Leone, and Liberia. The role of the society is to educate young women to grow in feminine and maternal values, and to mature into roles in adult society as wives, mothers, administrators, and political leaders. Part of initiation is to teach young girls the secrets of herbal medications and spiritual rights to help people who are ill in body, mind, and soul. The Bundu costume was worn by women during the ceremony. It consists of a striking facemask, or Sowei headpiece, with a collar made from very long organic plant fibers that completely cover the identity of the woman.
The costume features a carved mask, the only kind worn by women south of the Sahara. Although worn by women, they are hand fashioned by men, remarkably with quite elementary tools. Each is different its details, but all embody the culture’s concept of iconic female beauty, especially from the standpoint of modesty and moral values prized in the society. Masks are carved with an exaggerated forehead, referencing a noble character, and the downwardly cast eyes indicate humility and modesty. Many masks also have slight slashing marks around the cheek area, which speak of how beauty is not manifested in a pristine exterior, but rather how suffering, serving, and integrating into culture are the marks of beauty.
This piece became part of the Vatican Collections after the Order of the Fathers of the Holy Spirit sent it to be displayed in the Museums’ Missionary Exhibition of 1925. It is a rare gem, containing not only the mask, but all of the original constructive elements of the costume used in the Sande ritual dance.
Restoration & Conservation
When the costume arrived in the hands of the Vatican, there was a great deal for the team at the Polymateric Laboratory to consider. The first phase of the restoration involved an anoxic disinfestation treatment. Since the mannequin on which the costume was displayed showed problems of stability, it was secured by two metal vertical poles. A plastic covering was put around the mannequin and the support structure in order to disinfect the piece, a process that lasted 24 days.
Many fibers were stiff and weak. The wired elements had rusted, and the oxidized iron penetrated into the fabric fiber bands were sewn on the jacket using thick twine (2mm in diameter) and, because of their weight, created numerous lacerations on the fabric. In this phase, the conservators had to perform a series of scientific investigations in collaboration with the Laboratory for Conservation and Restoration Diagnostics that included both x-ray images of the work from a front view, and sampling from various areas to identify plant fiber species and the type of cloth used to construct the jacket and trousers. The restorers could then consolidate the plant fibers with a special substance called jun funori diluted to 1% in a solution of distilled water (60 %) and ethyl alcohol (40 %) using an airbrush spray. Given its critical condition the team decided to temporarily remove the fiber bands from the costume to repair them with greater facility. The whole suit was “vacuumed” with a micro-nozzle dust extractor. Then, a new canvas was dyed to match the original cloth and sewn to reinforce the jacket interiorly. Finally, the helmet mask had lost its luminosity, and had many abrasions on the surface. Some of the detailed carved elements on the crown of the mask were missing, evident from the natural light color of the wood that showed through. Pieces of the mask were also repositioned with nails. The helmet also got a good dusting, repair, and plant fibers were re-affixed to it. Thanks to the dexterity of the restorers’ hands, the Bundu, which embodies connotations of serving others and preserving feminine beauty gives testimony to these core familial values to all who visit the Ethnological Museum.
The Bundu Costume was restored thanks to the Michigan Chapter.