Josef Herman's first acquisition in 1945 (we can dismiss the small Songye figure bought a few days earlier for "a glorious pound" because it needed no financial planning for its purchase) is a superb carving from a people who encouraged invention. Unlike the carvers from all other parts of Africa, the head forms a relatively small portion of the whole work, but much attention is paid to the neck, the lobes of fat indicating wealth and prosperity, and the breasts, symbols of fertility. Leon Underwood (Figures in Wood in West Africa, first published in 1947 and reprinted in 1964) illustrates six female figures, alas none with collection data, which show to good effect the variety found in Mende figures, but none show the unique qualities found in the Herman example.
Monni Adams, describing the figure for the Royal Academy exhibition, 1995, mentions that it may have been carved for use by the Njayei Society of the Kpa Mende. W.A. Hart ("Sculptures of the Njayei Society among the Mende" African Arts, July 1993, Vol. XXVI, no.3, pp.46053) explores some of the functions of this exclusive society, which controls the health of the community and was probably Sherbro in origin, with its lore passed from father to son - unlike the Sande Society which is open to all females. Hart explains that the idea that the society was particularly concerned with mental illness probably arose from a misunderstanding of early reports on the practices of the society, although such treatments would have come within its compass, along with others such as fertility.
"Njayei is not the only sodality to use carved figures, usually female, as guardians or curative agents in rituals and for display. All over the Mende region (except in Bonthe district) carved figures could serve as house ornaments. The possession of carvings of persons or animals "to dress the house" added to the prestige of prosperous men. Between 1930 and 1961, British district officers encouraged regular displays of carvings at district meetings of paramount chiefs. It was a competitive display, and the winner received a money prize which was passed on to the carver. In Mende society any young male may apprentice or set himself up as a carver." (Adams op.cit., p.472).