This figure wears a bracelet and headdress. The latter is a twisted band similar to examples worn by Temne chiefs at their installations. The figure rides either an elephant or a leopard. Because neither animal was ridden in West Africa, the relationship between the figure and the animal is probably symbolic. The elephant is a metaphor for the king's strength based on the support of a broad constituency, and the leopard represents the ruler's unbridled power to administer justice, to seize what is naturally his and to protect his people.
Called nomoli in Mende, this figure is one among many similar examples that have been found throughout southeastern Sierra Leone and neighboring Guinea. Recent scholarship has identified the makers of the figures as the Sapi, whose present-day linguistic descendants are the Baga, Temne and Bullom. Stylistically they are similar to Sapi Portuguese ivory carvings dated to the 15th and 16th centuries. The Sapi tradition of carving stone figures probably dates at least to the 15th century. While no longer made, such figures have been found in the ground and are reused in a variety of ritual contexts by peoples in the area such as the Mende, Bullom and Kono.
The original purpose of such figures is the subject of ongoing debate, but the attributes of other examples and the customs of local inhabitants have caused scholars to speculate that the figures were commemorative, representing the regenerative force of an identifiable, honored ancestor or a recently deceased prominent person.
Male figure on an animal identified as either an elephant or possibly a leopard. His elbows are on his knees and his hands are placed under his chin. The face has large features.
René Guyot, Monrovia, Liberia, -- to 1982
Mrs. René Guyot, Florida and Switzerland, 1982
Emile M. Deletaille, Brussels, 1982 to 1985
Slavery and Freedom, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., September 24, 2016 (ongoing)
Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th & 17th Centuries, National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., June 23-September 16, 2007; Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles
Arnoldi, Mary Jo and Christine Mullen Kreamer. 1995. Crowning Achievements: African Arts of Dressing the Head. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, p. 13, no. 1.4.
Levenson, Jay A. (ed). 2007. Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th & 17th Centuries. Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, p. 151, no. A-4.
National Museum of African Art. 1999. Selected Works from the Collection of the National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, pp. 35-36, no. 16B.
Phaidon (eds). 2007. 30,000 Years of Art: The Story of Human Creativity Across Time and Space. London, New York: Phaidon Press, p. 759.
Tagliaferri, Aldo and Arno Hammacher. 1974. Fabulous Ancestors. New York: Africana Press, no. 9-10.