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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Toma : Toma Wooden Sculpture of a Woman
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Toma Wooden Sculpture of a Woman - PF.1330D (LSO)
Origin: Northern Liberia
Circa: 19 th Century AD to 20 th Century AD

Collection: African Art
Style: Toma
Medium: Wood

Location: United States
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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 figure.

Whatever its purpose, however, this is a striking and attractive piece of African art. - (PF.1330D (LSO))


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