Least said, soonest Mende

John Ryle

  • Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art by Sylvia Ardyn Boone
    Yale, 281 pp, £30.00, August 1986, ISBN 0 300 03576 4

The Mende are a forest-dwelling West African people, numbering about a million, one of the two principal ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. They owe their existence to the 16th-century diaspora of the Mande-speaking inhabitants of the Mali Empire and the incorporation by these conquering bands of a number of small coastal tribes. Mende history until the colonial era is one of raiding and slave-holding, their economy is agricultural and their traditional religion the veneration of ancestors and nature divinities under the aegis of a creator god. They do not figure largely in ethnographic literature, nor in accounts of African art, though their highly polished black wooden masks are found in many collections. Radiance of the Waters, in fact, is only the second book to be written about them (the other is by Kenneth Little, an anthropologist whose The Mende of Sierra Leone first appeared in 1951).

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