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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Bura Terracotta Sculpture
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Bura Terracotta Sculpture - DC.325 (LSO)
Origin: Burkina Faso/Niger
Circa: 3rd th Century AD to 11th th Century AD
Dimensions: 10.75" (27.3cm) high
Collection: African Art
Style: Bura
Medium: Terracotta

Location: United States
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This truncated full-length terracotta sculpture of a seated man (?) is an exceptionally rare figure, and was made by one of the most inscrutable groups in pre-colonial Africa: the Bura. The vast majority of Bura pieces are cephalomorphic or phallomorphic, and are additionally deconstructed to the point of abstraction. Fuller length figures, especially those with any detail below the neck, are vanishing rare. Most of the few published examples that exist are believed to be the remains of equestrian statues that once decorated the apexes of large ceramic vessels (hence the truncated base). This piece is exceptionally ornate, with a long torso, a small, round head and extensive scarifications and jewellery. The loins appear to be wrapped in some sort of raiment. The umbilicus is surrounded by six horizontal keloid scarifications, while the neck is encircled with an ornate three-strand necklace with a central drop pendant. The arms are truncated at the elbows, and were probably flexed. The slim neck has a single high torc around it. The face is serene, with coffee bean eyes and mouth, a short, protuberant nose and ears that are almost flush with the head. The face is adorned with four forehead scars, one beside each temple and a further array on each cheek. The position of the piece’s arms does resemble that of equestrian statues, which were a major marker of status in the Malian Kingdoms (only social elites could afford horses), although the full range of Bura stylistic variants is not yet understood; thus could therefore be a unique piece.

The Bura are a true paradox: almost nothing is known of this shadowy Nigerian/Malian group. They appear to have originated in the first half of the first millennium AD, although the only archaeologically-excavated site (Nyamey) dates between the 14th and 16th centuries. They are contemporary with – and probably related to – the Djenne Kingdom, the Koma, the Teneku and a satellite culture known as the Inland Niger Delta. Insofar as can be ascertained, the Bura share certain characteristics with these groups; for our purposes, these include extensive ceramic and stone sculptural traditions. The Bura appear to have been sedentary agriculturists who buried their dead in tall, conical urns, often surmounted by small figures. Their utilitarian vessels are usually plain, while other “containers” – the function of which is not understood – are often decorated with incised and stamped patterns. Their best-known art form is radically reductivist anthropomorphic stone statues, with heads rendered as squares, triangles and ovals, with the body suggested by a columnar, monolithic shape beneath. Phallic objects are also known; some phallomorphic objects may have been staffs, perhaps regalia pertaining to leaders of Bura groups. Ceramic heads are usually more complex than their stone counterparts, with incised decoration and variable treatment of facial proportions and features. There are a few very rare equestrian figures, which bear some resemblance to Djenne pieces; almost no intact human or equestrian figures are known.

The role of these figures is almost totally obscure. Equestrian figures probably represent high status individuals, and the very few full- body representations of humans may be portraits or ancestor figures. Intuitively – as with so many other groups both inside and beyond Africa – figures with exaggerated sexual characteristics would tend to be associated with fertility and fecundity, as would any artefact modelled in the shape of pudenda (although the sceptre-like qualities of some such pieces should be noted – see above). The distribution of decoration on some ceramic pieces (notably phalluses) may suggest that they were designed to be viewed from one angle only – perhaps as adorational pieces. Many pieces are believed to have been found in burials, perhaps implying an importance that would have been linked to social standing and status.

This is an exceptionally rare and desirable Bura sculpture, and a striking and attractive piece of ancient art from one of Africa’s lost civilisations.

- (DC.325 (LSO))


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