Nomoli Stone Figure, Sierra Leone
This charming Nomoli figure carved of soft steatite or soapstone was made by the West African people whom early Portuguese sailors referred to as the Sapi. Today these figures are considered extremely rare and sought after by collectors.
Nomoli sculptures are 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 excavated by 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 or any related groups.
The figure seems to be carved in soft steatite stone in ‘intaglio’, a baked finish to seal or harden its surface. A technique known from a culture developed around 2600 to 1900 BC in the river valleys of the Nile in Egypt, Euphrates in Mesopotamia.
The figure is sitting with a straight back, knees pulled up and arms resting one over the other above the knees. It has a thick cylindrical neck which supports an over-sized head with exaggerated facial features, including pronounced lips and bulging eyes, it has a chin beard and a small skullcap on the head. Related examples are illustrated in Cattaneo A. et al (2009. p. 144-45) and Phillips (2004, p. 470-71).
Condition: Very good, weathered patina, and a smoothness from handling. Apart from a small ‘heel’ in the upper lip and in the beard, the figure is in absolute good condition despite its high age. The figure is free-standing and does not require any support to sit upright.
Dimensions: H: 12 cm W: 5 cm D: 5½ cm. Weight: 400 gram.
Age: Est. 15th / 16th century.
Provenance: Old private French collection. Bought from a French gallery.
Literature: 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.
Aldo Tagliaferri, Stili del potere, Antiche sculture in pietra dalla Sierra Leone e dalla Guinea, Milan, 1989, p. 57, fig. 30
Aldo Tagliaferri, Pomdo Mahen Yafe et Nomoli, Paris, 2003, unpaginated, fig. 46