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This steatite stone figure was made by the West African people whom early Portuguese sailors referred to as the Sapi. Most examples represent males but the example here clearly is intended to represent a female.
Stone sculpture is rare in West Africa but small clusters of hundreds of such figures have been unearthed in Sierra Leone and in nearby territories. They were largely unearthed by a later people, the Mende and Kissi, who often uncovered them whilst working the land. The name ‘nomoli’ is a Mende term. It is likely that they were carved by the Sapi to represent ancestors – possibly they served as a memorial image for each individual who had died – and when found by the Mende, they were used again as ritual objects. The form of the figures has little or no relationship to anything produced by the later occupiers of the lands: the Mende, Kissi and related groups.
The figure here kneels on a base with bent knees leading to rounded hips, the abdomen leading to rounded shoulders. Fleshy arms rest on the knees and a thick cylindrical neck supports an over-sized head with exaggerated facial features including pronounced lips and ears, and bulging eyes. Pointy, conical breasts are prominent.
Examples of nomoli are illustrated in Cattaneo et al (2009. p. 144-45), Poynor (1995, p. 195), and Phillips (2004, p. 470-71).
The figure has a fine, weathered patina, and a smoothness from handling. The front of the image is largely intact. The is old loss to one side of the back of the image.
The image is accompanied by a black-metal, custom-made display stand.
Cattaneo, A., et al, Portugal and the World: In the 16th and 17th Centuries, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, 2009.
Lamp, F.J., ‘House of stones: Memorial art of fifteenth century Sierra Leone’, in The Art Bulletin, June 1983.
Phillips, T., Africa: The Art of a Continent, Prestel, 2004.
Poynor, R., Spirit Eyes, Human Hands: African Art at the Harm Museum, University Press of Florida, 1995.