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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Kissi : Kissi Soapstone Nomoli Sculpture
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Kissi Soapstone Nomoli Sculpture - DB.019 (LSO)
Origin: Sierra Leone
Circa: 12 th Century AD to 17 th Century AD
Dimensions: 5.5" (14.0cm) high
Collection: African Art
Medium: Stone
Condition: Extra Fine

Location: United States
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This enigmatic figure represents a shadowy and little-understood people who were the ancestors of the modern Kissi groups of modern Sierra Leone. Excavated from fields around the Kissi territory, these figures are revered as ancestors, put on shrines and even located under houses where they received libations in the hope they would attract good harvests. This confidently-carved specimen is typical of the genre. The piece depicts a bearded man sitting with his arms resting on his knees. He has protuberant eyes within large eyelids, a broad nose with flared nostrils, and a wide mouth, adorned inferiorly by a pinnate beard that drapes over his wrist. The head is disproportionately large, with comparatively small limbs and trunk, and he sits upon a small, dome-shaped base. The exaggeration of his features is especially notable in frontal view, as his nose is literally the width of his entire face. His limbs are sectorial, with further divisions of the body – the centre of the back, the neck – demarcated with incisions. He is unadorned, except for a cap-like piece of headgear that would probably suggest a rank of some importance, further indicated by his age (ancient Kissi society was probably a gerontocracy as it is today; see below), as evidenced by his beard. The piece has evidently been extensively handled, and has acquired a considerable patina.

The Kissi are strictly a language group that is spread across modern Sierra Leone, and includes other tribes such as the Bassa, Sapi, Temne, Toma and Grebo. The group, which technically also includes the Mende tribe, is known in art-history circles as the Sapi-Grebo. The Sapi kingdom used to include some of these tribes, but was subsumed under the Manes people in the 16th century. They, the Mende and the Sapi all have different ways of dealing with these figures when they appear, although they are important for each tribe. The modern tribes are mainly rice farmers, with vegetable gardens and some livestock (notably cows, which are considered as sacred, and reserved for sacrifices). Villages tend to be small, and run by members of the Poro society; a system of gerontocracy is also in operation. Most of the Kissi have converted to Christianity, but a notable proportion adhere to traditional belief that are centred around Pombo, Mahen Yafe and Nomoli figures, which are dug up in the fields and revered as ancestors (Pombo – the generic name for these items – literally means “the deceased”) or “rice gods”.

As the items are typically out of their context, little is known of the way they were carved and used by their original societies. It has been claimed that they are a localised offshoot of early Portuguese incursions into the area (15th – 16th century), but there is little stylistic or historic basis in fact to support this assertion. The Sapi kingdom may also have been involved in making of some classes of figure. The major distinctions between the figure are that the Mahen Yafe are primarily heads adorned with unusual facial hair and jewellery, while the Pombo (as called by the Mende) figures have crested hairstyles and filed teeth. The Nomoli are very much as depicted by the current piece, although they are sometimes bearded. The only ray of data regarding age is a radiometric date on a rare wooden piece, which yielded a date between 1190 and 1394, although the fact this is an isolate, and without context, makes its validity questionable.

The role of these pieces is, as stated, uncertain. The more ornate ones probably represent chiefs, while the less anthropomorphic probably represent spirits. As there is no strong evidence to suggest that there was major population replacement, however, it is possible that the ancient populations were ancestral to modern Kissi groups, and that certain parallels can be drawn between the. The modern Kissi are highly superstitious, and live in fear of the supernatural. They have talismans to protect them from the unknown, and especially from witches. Their treatment of statues reflects this tendency. So it is possible that the figures, while far from their original context, are in fact being used much in the way that they were intended to be. This is a fascinating and well-carved piece of ancient African art. - (DB.019 (LSO))


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