Sierra Leone Stone Figure

By William Dewey
Pennsylvania State University (formerly University of Iowa)

Guinea-ConakrySierra Leone; Nomoli Style

Male figure

15th-17th century

Steatite

H x W x D: 16.2 x 8.6 x 10.8 cm (6 3/8 x 3 3/8 x 4 1/4 in.)

Museum purchase

85-1-2

Photograph by Franko Khoury

National Museum of African Art

Smithsonian Institution

Figures such as this, carved of soft steatite or soapstone, are frequently found by the Mende people of Sierra Leone and are called nomoli. They are found in caves and earthen mounds and are often discovered by farmers. The Mende place them in shrines by their rice fields to increase the fertility of the crops. If the crops do not fare well, the little figures are whipped so that next year the crops will do better. This may have nothing to do with their original functions. Those who carved them were a people known to the Portuguese traders of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as the Sapi. This figure is fairly typical, with a large head. Lamp has discovered that the “iconography of the carved figures suggests that... they represent the identifiable, honored ancestors and the nobility recently deceased” (1983: 236-7).