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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Kissi Stone Pombo Sculpture of a Horned Man
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Kissi Stone Pombo Sculpture of a Horned Man - PF.4096 (LSO)
Origin: Guinea/Sierra Leone
Circa: 16th th Century AD to 18th th Century AD
Dimensions: 8.5" (21.6cm) high
Catalogue: V24
Collection: African
Medium: Soapstone

Location: UAE
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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 stone 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 an unusually ornate example. It represents a man standing on an integral base, holding a long staff-like object in each hand. He is wearing some form of garments on his upper half and perhaps something akin to short trousers that terminate above the knees. The face is powerfully and sensitively carved, with a fan-shaped beard, a snub nose, hooded eyes with incised outlines, and deep lines between the cheeks and nose; this suggests that the person depicted is fully mature, perhaps appropriate considering that many African cultures operate as gerontocracies. Most remarkable, he is wearing a horned helmet-like piece of headgear, the horns swooping down past the face. The whole surface is very roughened, with the notable exception of the horn tips, which are smooth. The identity of the person portrayed is uncertain, although the extraordinary apparel and austere mien would seem to suggest it an authoritative figure. Alternatively, it may be a fictional or mythical character. The animal horns may also refer to the ancient African tradition – retained by the Bushmen – of disguise using animal pelts and horns, so as to be able to hunt more successfully.

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 them. 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, and one of the most ornate examples we have seen.

- (PF.4096 (LSO))


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