This striking ceramic figure was made by a ceramicist of the Djenne culture, in modern-day Mali. It portrays a kneeling woman, her hands resting on her knees and her face upraised. Detail below the neck is considerable, with pointed breasts, keloid scarifications (or a necklace), bracelets and a prominent umbilicus. The head and face are of exceptional quality, featuring prominent eyes with discrete rims, a scarified brow, a long nose, a set mouth and an elongated face shape that produces a somewhat lugubrious expression. The head is covered with an ornate cap, with rectangular panels of incised decoration.
The Djenne culture is focused upon the historic city of Djenne-Djenno in the Niger Inland Delta of modern Mali. It is notable for being the oldest city in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the onetime hub of an enormous trading empire that dominated this area of Africa in the Middle Ages. It was founded by the Bozo (allied with the Bamana) people in about 800 AD, and was relocated upstream to take advantage of Trans-Saharan trade networks. The Djenne style is technically part of the Malian Empire – along with numerous other groups (i.e. the Tenenku, Bura and Bankoni [centred on the town of Bamako]) – but the city itself never was. Indeed, the Malian Empire is said to have tried to conquer the city-state 99 times before giving up. Djenne-Djenno remained unassailed until the 1470s, and never ceased in terms of influence despite changing hands several more times. It only waned in importance when the French arrived at the end of the 19th century
Djenne culture – and that of the closely allied Bankoni group – is highly significant in the development of West African art styles. In simplistic terms, their central preoccupation was seated, standing and kneeling human figures, in addition to equestrian and zoomorphic/anthropomorphic divertimenti. They are invariably highly expressionistic, with little regard for proportion and scale, but with phenomenal modelling to produce powerful and refined masterworks such as this example. Owing to the popularity of Djenne pieces, sites have been systematically plundered so we know almost nothing of their culture beyond its evident refinement. It was evidently highly socially stratified, with major markers of wealth including scarifications, jewellery, horses and prestige artefacts such as the sculptures themselves. This fact makes the few Djenne/Bankoni masterworks that exist exceptionally valuably both socially and, as can be seen from the current example, aesthetically.
This is likely to represent a member of the social elite of a vanished civilisation. It is a rare and remarkable piece of ancient African art.
- (PF.3751 (LSO))