Queens resident Pascal Imperato spent six years administering smallpox vaccinations in West Africa.
As the resident medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he worked with “medicine societies” where the political leaders would treat their people with spiritual and herbal remedies. Imperato needed to gain the trust of these leaders, who were all women, in order to vaccinate, he said.
He became interested in these female-run Bundu (also called Sande) societies of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and their rituals. One ceremony is an induction ceremony wherein the elders of the Bundu society welcome the younger women.
The inductees wear elaborately sculpted masks or Sowei headpieces. Men never wear the headpieces. However, men sculpt the masks, never women.
“I became interested in the masks after I became aware of the medical society structure,” said Imperato.
His wife, Eleanor, and later his son Gavin, who also worked as a physician in West Africa, became interested in the masks. The family began to collect them.
After ceremonies the different chapters of Bundu societies sell the masks. So the Imperato collection grew into the 60-mask exhibit displayed from April 19 to June 29 at the Queensborough Community College.
“It’s the only society that uses masks only worn by women. It’s a little special,” said Gallery Director Faustino Quintanilla. “It also fits very well in Queens because of the diversity. It’s a very interesting subject to study because women play a big role.”
The masks depict many reoccurring motifs — one such theme is a battle between good and evil. For example, birds and lizards often symbolize good whereas snakes represent evil. Other geometric patterns represent amulets (gems which protect or give good luck) and ritual scarifications.
The special exhibit is in addition to the college’s permanent African art exhibition, which the Imperatos helped build about 10 years ago.
Bundu Mask Exhibit
When: April 19- June 29. Closed Mon.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues. and Fri.; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Wed. and Thurs. and 12-5 p.m. Sat. and Sun.
Where: Queensborough Community College, 222-05 56 Ave., Bayside