This powerfully carved figure of a woman was
made by the Toma (or Loma) people, a division
of the Sapi-Grebo, of modern-day Liberia and
Guinea. Comparatively little information exists
about these figures as they are very rare and
important, and rarely reach the open market.
What data there are indicate that they may be
ancestor spirits, representing past generations
whose assistance is sought when in extremis.
The figure is beautifully rendered. It stands in a
stoic pose with both hands almost joining over
the loins. Her carriage is superb, with a vertical
line between her hips and the nape of her neck.
Her knees are slightly bent, as are her elbows,
and her neck is demarcated by a series of rings.
Her head is magnificently effective in its
simplicity and dramatic impact. It is essentially
an incised oval, with the face rendered as a
depressed area beneath glowering brows that are
a straight line across the top1/3 of the head.
The protuberant ears are the only other detail.
The nose joins the brows, providing a T-bar
effect. The inclined angulation of the horizontal
cut allows shadow to collect beneath it, lending
the impression of eyes. This geometric
reductivism is extremely effective in conveying a
sense of potency and presence. There is a band
of decorated relief running around the jawline.
The body of the figure is decorated with incised
patterns arranged in herringbone bands, further
grouped into geometric shapes. In this respect,
the figure demonstrates its affinity with other
local groups, especially the Bassa.
The Loma/Toma are part of the Mande group,
although Kwa and Mel are also spoken. The area
is surrounded by numerous smaller units
including the Kuwaa, Bandi, Kissi, Kuranko,
Konyaka and Malinke and Kpelle, who have all
played their part in the formation of Toma
identity. The whole region was originally under
the aegis of the Mande Empire, but when this
crumbled in the 15th century the dispersal of
peoples into the forested littoral area brought
about notable cultural heterogeneity, assisted in
part by their contact with local groups.
Portuguese explorers wrote detailed reports
about the Mande (or Mane, as they were known)
invasion, which displaced many ethnic groups
thanks to their superior technology (especially
iron-smelting) and weaponry. Their careful
alliances with European forces during the
colonial period guaranteed their cultural survival.
The Toma are noted for their mask-making
expertise, which is particularly strongly
associated with the Poro society, as well as with
an animistic regard and respect for the spirits
and power of natural things – such as land and
water. These are, in turn, represented by animals
of various sorts, especially the crocodile (which is
viewed as sacred), all of whose power is
symbolically captured from the wild and
channelled into the village to generate crops and
promote the birth of children. The most
remarkable examples of these masks are several
metres tall. They are made very much along the
same lines as the current piece, with a cut-away
face beneath a dominant brow, although they
usually have some form of coiffure or topknot.
Figurative work such as this is rare. Most of it is
on staffs of office and other regalia, which are
rarely traded. There is a fleeting reference to
figures made and used by the female Bundu
society – which is similar to the Sande society
among the Mende people – and that these were
used as power figures in some cases. This is
demonstrated by the occasional discovery of
power “charges” (similar to the “bilongos” of
Kongo sculpture) – made from magical
substances and attached to the belly of the
Whatever its purpose, however, this is a striking
and attractive piece of African art.
- (PF.1330D (LSO))