Art is where we belong

The sale has ended. This object is no longer available.


101 / 102
Back to the list



Size 19,5 cm

Stone - 19,5 cm
Comiondo, Sierra Leone

Fabulous Ancestors: Stone carving from Sierra Leone and Liberia, 1974, p. 58-59

Private collection, Monrovia
Luciano Lanfranchi collection, Milano
Private collection, Belgium

Vision of a lost world

The collection of Sapi stone figures of Luciano Lanfranchi, by Frederick. J.Lamp

The ancient stone figures of Sierra Leone and bordering Guinea and Liberia are truly one of the great wonders of Africa. They shine a small but focused light on the Sapi civilization existing before the coming of the Europeans that seemed to have a florescence by the end of the first millennium, CE. André Alvares d’Almada, an Afro-Portugueseresident of Cape Verde who visited the Upper Guinea Coast and reported to the Portuguese crown, wrote in 1594 of the Sapi that “the majority are given to pleasures and feasts which they continually have, for the land has everything in abundance.”1 The English trader, John Sparke, in 1564, shortly after the Mande invasion of approximately 1550, wrote of the encounter of the Sapi and the Mande groups invading at that time: “These Sapies are more civil than the Samboses [i.e., the Mande]. The Samboses war against the Sapies for covetousness of their riches.”2 The final dates of the carving of these stone figures for their own ritual use probably coincide with these invasions, in which the Mande invaders seized power and severely subjugated the Sapi.

How far back these stone figures can be dated is unknown at this point. But similar figures in wood still extant have been carbon-dated as far back as the tenth century CE.3 This predates the Mali Empire, and coincides with the empire of ancient Ghana. The Sapi apparently were not imperialistic, but they have certainly left a superior artistic legacy.

The figures here demonstrate the wide variety of representations and the broad geographical area that are their source. Basically there are two regional styles here, originating, on the one hand, on the Atlantic coast of southern Sierra Leone, in the territory of the Southern Bullom or Sherbro today, and, on the other, on the inland border of Sierra

Leone and Guinea, mostly among the Kissi. The coastal style is characterized by huge popping eyes with heavy eyelids, a broad flat nose, and huge lips, usually seated on a socle, with a hole bored on the top of the head. The inland style figures have small, beady, outlined eyes, usually with an open mouth and teeth bared, elaborate coiffure, often kneeling, without a socle. The large head is probably from central Sierra Leone, featuring extremely heavy eyelids, earrings and nose rings, and an elegant, knobbed coiffure, probably depicting a Sapi king (76).

There are some extraordinary specimens here with unique or rare features. The two animals (85), perhaps in combat, are a well-executed example of a type seldom seen. Some of the inland figures and heads show elaborate scarification on the cheeks, neck and abdomen, this same incising can be seen on the two Kissi wood figures (77, 84). Notice the fine braiding on the forehead of the small head fragment (97). One of the inland kneeling figures seems to be holding a cup, another some kind of rod. Several figures from the inland region are richly covered with decorative designs from head to foot. The seated coastal figure on a socle seems to be holding a bag (89). One tiny inland male figure with a high hair crest holds a smaller figure before him (88), as is seen on other figures from this region, probably indicating a hierarchy. One of most unusual figures, perhaps unique, is the kneeling figure in the coastal style seemingly holding a horizontal animal mask on his head (92). This mask resembles a number of masks used today among the Temne, Bullom, and Baga, all descendants of the ancient Sapi. The figures are a testament to the cultural and artistic wealth of the ancient Sapi peoples.

Frederick John Lamp, August 2019.