Fertility idol was a souvenir of British Empire Exhibition

Nomori - carved stone figure
Nomori - carved stone figure

This little chap is a representation of a ‘nomoli’ or ‘nomori’ (the latter term is engraved on his base, even though the former seems to be used more commonly), found in Sierra Leone, and less commonly, Liberia.

Nomori – let’s stick with that version – are stone figures carved sometimes from soft materials like steatite, or soapstone, and sometimes from harder stuff like granite. Typically, a nomori has a distended abdomen, a large, flat-skulled head and ears, bulging eyes and pursed lips. He is often sitting or kneeling, sometimes riding a horse, and sometimes holding a weapon, shield or, as in our example, a bowl.

Who carved them is unclear, but it seems likely that they were made by early tribes in Sierra Leone called the Sapi, or Sapes, and the Sherbro, possibly in the 15th and 16th centuries, possibly much earlier.

They are often found by a contemporary tribe, the Mende, in caves and buried in agricultural fields. The Mende call them ‘men in stone’.

Their original significance is unknown, but the Mende have found a use for them – they place them in shrines next to their rice fields to increase the fertility of the crops. If the crops don’t do as well as expected, the poor little nomori is whipped so that the crops do better the following year.

Actual nomori are pretty small statuettes, usually around 40cm high, but our little man is tiny – less than an inch high – and made of bronze, or possibly gold-plated lead.

It seems likely that he was made for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924 and 1925, possibly as a giveaway souvenir. The three British-controlled West Africa countries - Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and what was then know as Gold Coast (now Ghana) collaborated on a ‘walled city’ for the exhibition, within which each had a pavilion showcasing the products and crafts of that country.

At the time, the British Empire still contained 58 countries, and of them only Gambia and Gibraltar did not take part in this major exhibition, which cost £12 million and was the largest exhibition ever staged anywhere in the world, attracting no less than 27 million visitors.

The nomori is part of the Scarborough Collections ethnography section, which will be the subject of a store tour led by Esther Graham on Tuesday November 4. For further information, please visit http://www.scarboroughmuseumstrust.com or call Scarborough Art Gallery on (01723) 374753.

For more information on the Scarborough Collections, please contact collections manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or (01723) 384510.