This superbly detailed and well-preserved sculpture of a standing man was made by one of Africa’s most inscrutable groups – the Bankoni. The representation is classically Bankoni, with a very long body and arms, a columnar neck and a serene, reduced face with a long nose, slit eyes and protuberant ears. The left hand is truncated, the right resting on the groin; the figure ends at the level of the thighs. The piece is remarkably decorative, with 6 armlets on each side, further bracelets around the wrists and a three-row collar made up of circular links, combined with a drop pendant and a harness crossing the thorax in an X format. If later period works are anything to go by, one would assume that this represents a member of the social elite, to judge from his apparent wealth
The Bankoni is strictly speaking a ceramic style. It is arguably part of, related to, or a subvariant of the Djenne style, which is the primary cultural facies of the Malian Empire. These pieces are thus dated to the 13th to 16th centuries AD. The Djenne and Bankoni styles ran contemporaneously and were based around the cities of Djenne-Djenno and Bamako, respectively. Djenne and Bankoni sculptures – and pieces made by the closely related Bura and the Inland Niger Delta (IND) groups – are highly significant in the development of West African art styles.
All the styles are related. Most pieces are anthropomorphic, showing a range of seated, standing and kneeling human figures, in addition to various equestrian and unclassified divertimenti. Djenne pieces tend to be naturalistic, while Bankoni sculptures tend towards elongated proportions. Both depict warriors and hunters above all others. The Bura, by contrast, abstract their humans until almost unrecognizable, and combine them with phalliform works; the IND is known for abstracted zoomorphic terracottas.
Owing to the popularity of these 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 is a rare and remarkable piece of ancient African art.