A Fine Sherbro Female Figure, Sierra Leone
A Sherbro Female Figure
The Sherbro are one of the smaller ethnic groups in Sierra Leone and there art work closely resembles the style of the Mende, their more numerous and better known neighbors. Though this figure has previously been attributed to the Mende, there is clear evidence that it was carved by a Sherbro artist.
At least four other examples by the same hand are known. A. F. Griffiths acquired two figures which he donated to the Royal Pavilion in Brighton in 1904. At nearly the same time a Swiss merchant named Ruply acquired a figure that is now in the Bernisches Historisches Museum, Bern. Ruply acquired the piece at Mobforay on the Jong River. A fourth example is known from the I. Rudnyanszky collection in Budapest. The Ruply piece is by far the best documented but shows little sign of having been used, unlike the present piece which shows wear from handling on both feet and on the right hand.
Sculptures such as this are usually and erroneously called minsereh figures and attributed to the Yase society based on descriptions from the British colonial officer T. J. Alldridge in his book The Sherbro and its Hinterland (1901). Alldridge collected a number of related figures before 1900. These figures, now in the collection of the Royal Pavilion, were described as objects for the Yase, or Yassi, society whose principal function was the cure of physical and mental disorders. Alldridge refers to the figures as minsereh (or more properly min si le - literally "the spirits") and said they were used by female leaders of the society in divination. Not all such figures are used in this manner, however, and similar figures are used by the Sande and other societies.
Without specific documentation therefore it isn't possible to attribute these figures to use in specific initiation societies. In general such sculptures are used to stand beside and protect the medicines in a society house where they remain unseen by the public except when they are brought out on special occasions such as society initiations.
William C. Siegmann