Biography of an Ancient African Stone Sculpture

It’s easy to see museum artefacts as static objects, nothing but the fossil remains of long-dead cultures. And it’s easy to forget that objects can have biographies almost in the same way as humans do–in the case of museum artefacts especially, what’s written on their labels often describes only one of the many phases of their long and varied lives. In this post, I will tell you the likely story of an enigmatic stone sculpture from sixteenth-century Sierra Leone, from its carving to its current residence in the storage rooms of Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts. The sculpture’s accession number at the museum is UEA 204, so I’ll just refer to it as “204”. There are many sculptures like it in museums across the world, and they are mostly known by the term nomoli (plural nomolisia), which means “found spirit” in Mende.

UEA 204

UEA 204. Height: 21 cm. Weight: more than you’d expect.

204 is a sculpture in the shape a seated male figure (Fig. 1). It has a bald, elongated head, bulging eyes, fleshy nose, and full lips. The head is marked by a V-shaped design that may represent a scarification mark, while the elbows are weighed down by ball-shaped bling which may or may not be of a similar kind as that worn by a horse-raider painted on the wall of a Kissi house in Guinea (below). The figure’s hands are holding something to its chin–perhaps 204 is tugging at his beard. Though most nomolisia are simply the (grey) colour of the stone they’re made of, 204 is covered in a black patina that probably derives from a combination of lamp-black and oil–more on this below.


Picture of a horse-rider found in a Kissi house.

204’s mother (or, indeed, its father) was an indistinct mass of steatite, which is a kind of soapstone. Its father (or mother) was most likely a 16th-century Sapi carver from Sierra Leone. This is based on two things: number one, the journals and accounts left behind by the Portuguese traders and explorers that visited West Africa at the time are rich in praise for the Sapi’s technical skill; number two, there are a number of stylistic similarities between nomolisia and the human figures ornamenting the “tourist art”commissioned by the Portuguese traders and explorers for their patrons back home (mostly slightly tacky ivory salt cellars known as “Afro-Portuguese ivories“).

204 depicts a seated male figure: could it have been a portrait? It is entirely possible, although it may also simply represent a generic elite figure, perhaps the likeness of an important ancestor. Either way, 204 likely depicts a powerful person. Most steatite sculptures from Sierra Leone (including the mahei yafei heads), correspond to Portuguese descriptions of West African chiefs, with their beards, elaborate hairstyles, filed teeth and large jewellery. 204’s appearance is not quite so striking in this sense as other pieces, but it does have a (possible, two-pronged) beard, and chunky elbow-bling, and the act of sitting on stools is a traditional indicator of power in much of Africa.

As I said, 204’s first life may have been as a Sapi ancestor figure. Travellers walking eastwards from Temne towns in modern-day Sierra Leone may come across a small structure with, inside, an altar known as am-boro ma-sar, upon which several stones are placed. Each of these stones will have been gathered from the gravesite of an important personage–each, then, is linked to a particular person, even if, after some time, only the altar’s caretaker may remember which stone is linked to whom. And every year, after harvest, a sacrifice is made to the stones, the altar is cleaned, and people recite propitiatory prayers to each of the past chiefs represented by the stones. It’s entirely possible that 204 was used in a similar way, although evidence for this is restricted to two very vague accounts. There’s a certain Fernandes, who writes, in 1506, that the Sapi made sacrifices to images of their ancestors, and that slaves and commoners fashioned these images out of wood–implying, perhaps, that the ancestors of the powerful were made of a different material, such as stone. And then there’s French General Beaulieu, writing in 1619 of the sacrifices the Sapi made to “little figures grotesquely shaped, made to look like devils” (Lamp 1983: 230).

And then–drama! In the early seventeenth century, Sapi territory was invaded by the Mani, a culture group that the Portuguese often described as the “barbarous” counterpart to the more “civilised” Sapi (though reality may well have been more complex), and the production of soapstone sculptures, nomolisia included, ceased. In 1575, a Frenchman named Thevet described an iconoclastic scene in which “the barbarians of the country” “split and brok[e]” a sculpture in “the likeness of a great toad or frog” (Lamp 1983: 230), which might well have been a nomoli. Most nomolisia have been found in caves, river beds, and beneath forest underbrush–sometimes in clusters of up to 50, sometimes singly–and it is entirely possible that the Sapi buried them in these places in order to protect them from Mani iconoclasm. It is likely that 204, also, spent several centuries hidden in the dark earth.

204 was probably unearthed again in the nineteenth or early twentieth century in a field, by a farmer. A Mr. Bruce of the Railway Survey of Sierra Leone reported that, in the Tiama district in 1902, farmers thought the nomolisia had been made by God, and that they in turn made farms fertile, but only if they were “placed on a pedestal of earth, usually an old ant-hill, in the field, and the farmer and his household walk[ed] round it chanting an appeal for a good crop, each in turn striking it with a whip” (Joyce 1905: 99). Conversely, a Mr. Hart wrote that, in the Bandajuma and Panguma districts, people thought nomolisia were made by the Devil, and, if whipped a sufficient number of times, they would go out at night, steal rice from neighbouring farms, and then plant it in that of their owners. We don’t know in which district 204 was dug up, so we don’t know if the farmers who likely came across it thought it came from God or from the Devil.

At some point, in the first few decades of the twentieth century, 204 became an art object–or, at least, something which some Europeans appreciated aesthetically, and which they were therefore willing to purchase. Up till then, Westerners had been largely dismissive of African art–we can see this in Thevet’s comparison of a possible nomoli to a “great toad or frog”, in nineteenth-century American missionary George Thompson’s pronouncement that nomolisia were “[e]vidence for the depravity of man”, and in T.A. Joyce’s 1905 article, in which he says that soapstone is so easy to carve (even with a figernail, he says) that no skill whatsoever was required to produced nomolisia. What changed? Most sources agree that a hugely important factor in this was the fact that prominent artists like Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani often took inspiration from African art for their own work.

For some reason, wooden sculpture was particularly popular with collectors, and perhaps it is for this reason that someone had the idea of covering 204 in lamp-black and oil: maybe they wanted to trick prospective buyers into thinking it was made of wood instead of stone. Whether or not the black patina played an important part in this, 204 attracted the attention of British painter Basil Jonzen, who acquired it in Bo, Sierra Leone, in the Forties, and brought it to the UK in 1944. Jonzen, then an extremely successful artist, and now completely forgotten, set up an art gallery in Kensington immediately after World War II, using his own collection as his original stock, and it was most likely in this gallery that Robert and Lisa Sainsbury first set their eyes on 204.

Bought in 1945, 204 was one of the first African artefacts to become part of the Sainsbury collection. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury apparently did not define themselves as “collectors”, but they certainly accumulated a large number of objects between the Thirties and the Eighties, from Henry Moore sculptures to Maori figurines, largely before any of these things were appreciated artistically (and, for that matter, before they were anywhere near as expensive as they would be today). They simply collected things that they liked. Robert himself admitted that, when he first started collecting it, he “didn’t appreciate [African art], […] didn’t understand it or know anything about it”, but he “straightforward liked it in sensual terms”. It was so that young people could share a similar aesthetic delight towards the objects they collected that the Sainsburys donated their collection to UEA in 1973. Since 1978, the collection has been housed at UEA’s Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, and objects like 204 have inspired countless essays and projects like this one.

However, 204 is not currently on display. Alana Jelinek wrote a wonderful novelette from the perspective of a Fijian “cannibal fork” at Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, The Fork’s Tale As Narrated By Itself, in which a chapter is devoted to the fork’s feelings of loss when it is put in storage, and kept away from humans. The fork says that it is only by entering the stories of humans, or embodying the stories humans learn about in museums, that it is fulfilled. All the objects share these feelings: the fork writes of the tension that is felt in the boxes whenever a curator enters the storerooms (everyone is wondering if anyone will be picked to be displayed), and, when the humans are not around, all the objects do is bicker about who is more worthy of being displayed, accusing other objects of being glorified tourist curios. Hopefully handling 204 in order to write this post made its stay in storage more tolerable, and the other objects won’t be too jealous of the attention I gave it, and call it names while no one is around.

So: this is how a plausible biography of 204 could be summarised. 204 was commissioned by Sapi elite and carved by a Sapi artist between the fifteenth and sixteenth century. It was originally intended as an ancestral figure to its lineage or community, and used for divinatory and/or propitiatory rituals, of a similar type as those of the modern-day Temne. In the sixteenth century, 204 was hidden underground, so that it could escape the iconoclastic tendencies of the invading Mani. In the nineteenth or early twentieth century, 204 was unearthed, in a field, by a farmer, and the farmer thought it would bring prosperity to his or her farm if treated correctly. At some point, however, someone had the idea of selling 204 as an art object to a European collector, and painted it black to make it look like a wooden sculpture. Basil Jonzen collected 204 in 1944, the Sainsburys bought it from him in 1945, and now 204 is in storage at the SCVA, which has housed the Sainsbury collection since 1978. Being in storage is occasionally peaceful, but 204 hopes to be back on display soon, as it enjoys being thought about by visitors, and lack of human contact makes the other objects extremely cranky.


Carey, M. 1997. Africa. In Hooper, S. (ed) Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, vol. 2: Pacific, African and Native North American Art pp. 96-217. New Haven; London: Yale University Press in association with University of East Anglia.

Hooper, S. 1997. Introduction. In Hooper, S. (ed) Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, vol. 1: European 19th and 20th Century Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture pp. xxv-lxxvii. New Haven; London: Yale University Press in association with University of East Anglia.

Jelinek, A. 2013. The Fork’s Tale as Narrated by Itself. London: LemonMelon.

Joyce, T.A. 1905. Steatite figures from West Africa in the British Museum. Man (5): 97-100.

Lamp, F.J. 1983. House of stones: memorial art of fifteenth-century Sierra Leone. The Art Bulletin (65, 2): 216-237.

  1. signorinatumistufi said:

    Extremely enjoyable reading. Thank you for this!

  2. Joan Gero said:

    I have enjoyed reading several entries… but I do not see the author’s name!!! Who is writing?? Who’s blog is this??? I would love to know who is writing!!!

    • Whoa, thanks! That really means a lot, I was about lose my confidence about this blog, but this comment restored it! I’m a student at the University of East Anglia, my name is Enrico Cioni. I graduated last year in Archaeology & Anthropology from Cambridge, and now I’m studying an interdisciplinary course on the arts of Africa, the Americas and Oceania. This blog is my attempt at training myself to communicate the awesome things and ideas I come across in my studies to people who would not normally come across them.

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