Mahen Yafe ('Head of the Chief' Head)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Portuguese traders called the populations that lived along coastal Sierra Leone Sapi. The Sapi, which now includes the Sherbro, Temne, and others of the West Atlantic language group, once lived in southeastern Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.

The Sapi have soapstone heads called mahen yafe, which mean "head of the chief" or "chief’s devil." Mende farmers who live in the area today have found mahen yafe in archaeological finds over a wide area of Sierra Leone and western Liberia, primarily between the Moa and St. Paul Rivers. Almost all of the objects identified had been found by farmers clearing their fields, well diggers, or diamond miners. Other inhabitants of the region, such as the Kissi, Kono and Mende have also found these sculptures buried underground.

Although mahen yafe are believed to have been made by the Sapi, there’s a lack of information about these heads and the exact ethnic group that made them. It is generally accepted that the makers of these objects were rarely from the populations that now inhabit the region. Mahen yafe heads might date back to when the Sapi kingdoms still held sway over much of what is now Mendeland.

Their exact use is unknown. It is speculated that they might have been used as effigy heads or portraits set on the ground or on low altars in commemoration of deceased Sapi chiefs. The heads exhibit details of hair, filed teeth, and ornaments. Various groups believed mahen yafe depicted different people and thus honoured them in unique ways. The Kissi believed that mahen yafe were manifestations of their ancestors and placed them in tombs. The Mende regarded them as "rice gods" and made offerings to them in hopes of fertility for the land and abundance of crops. The large cavity at the top of the head is indicative of the fact that the object had a ritual "second life" following its rediscovery.

Distinguishing Features

  • Made of steatite/soapstone
  • Large naturalistic or abstract human head
  • Come in a variety of styles
  • Elaborate coiffure
    • Combination of shaved, tufted, and plaited areas
  • Strong facial features
    • Protruding, hooded eyes
    • Eyes look down
    • Strong, flat nose
    • Nostrils and ears depicted
    • Beard and moustache often depicted
    • Wide mouth
  • Elaborate jewellery sometimes carved (earrings and nose rings)
  • Centred pedestal for neck
    • Often positioned with face turned up to sky
    • Cranium and jaw project laterally on opposite sides

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