Sapes (formerly Sapi)
In the style of 16th century
Artist Unidentified

Object Place: Sierra Leone


25.4 cm (10 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique


Not On View


Africa and Oceania



Life-size heads such as this one have sometimes been called mahena yafe (spirit of the chief) by the Mende, who unearthed them in the course of farming, then preserved and venerated them. Evidence suggests that these, like smaller steatite figures, were fashioned by the Sapi people who inhabited the region when Portuguese navigators explored the coast. The handsome Afro-Portuguese ivories of this era are credited to Sapi artists as well. The coarse grey texture bears tan discolorations and scattered abrasions. Because the Sapi kingdoms were terminated by Mande invasions in the sixteenth century, these heads are often dated to about 1500. The rings on the nose and ears may be marks of status. The heavy-lidded eyes, wide mouth, and pointed teeth add to the aggressive appearance.


1991, acquired in Sierra Leone by Charles Davis, Davis Gallery, New Orleans; February 11, 1992, sold by Davis Gallery to William and Bertha Teel, Marblehead, MA; 1996, partial gift of William and Bertha Teel to the MFA; 2014, acquired fully with the bequest of William Teel to the MFA. (Accession Dates: December 18, 1996 and February 26, 2014)

Credit Line

Gift of William E. and Bertha L. Teel