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figure

  • Object type

  • Museum number

    Af1963,14.1

  • Description

    Almost life-size human head, 'mahe yafei', with pedestal-like neck carved from soapstone or steatite. Head has elaborate hairstyle with top knot and earrings.

  • Ethnic name

  • Date

    • 17thC-18thC
  • Production place

  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 24 centimetres
    • Width: 10 centimetres
    • Depth: 17.5 centimetres
  • Curator's comments

    Although rare in sub-Saharan Africa, steatite or soapstone carvings are found in a small area embracing parts of the modern states of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Most of the sculptures are of human form, with some carved heads. Those found in Sierra Leone are called 'nomoli' in Mende. Other names that have been used for these figures are 'pompta' or 'mahe yafei'.

    The age of these sculptures is relatively unknown, however there is evidence to suggest that some may predate Portuguese encounters with the coastal areas of Sierra Leone in the 15th and 16th century. They are thought to have originally represented chiefs or group leaders. More recently, however, such figures have been re-discovered by local people buried in soil or in waterways during the course of their preparation of farm lands and used as rice gods to encourage high yields. Many believe them to be naturally formed, rather than carved.

    The pieces from Kissi country, such as this, tend to be different in style; the Kissi worship them in the belief that they represent their ancestors. Scholars have concluded that these sculptures were probably made by the ancestors of the Kissi peoples who inhabited lands currently occupied by the Mende. However, it is very difficult to date the sculptures with any certainty or to know for what purpose they were originally carved.

    T. Phillips (ed.), Africa, the art of a continent (London, Royal Academy, 1995)

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  • Location

    G25/dc12

  • Exhibition history

    Exhibited:

    1995-96, London, Museum of Mankind, Made in Africa: Africa and the National Art Collection Fund

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date

    1963

  • Acquisition notes

    Collected by Captain A.W.F Fuller in 1937.

  • Department

    Africa, Oceania & the Americas

  • Registration number

    Af1963,14.1

Human head, carved from of soapstone.

Human head, carved from of soapstone.

Image description

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Object reference number: EAF8261

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