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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Bura : Bura Stone Idol
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Bura Stone Idol - DC.335 (LSO)
Origin: Burkina Faso/Niger
Circa: 3 rd Century AD to 11 th Century AD
Dimensions: 18" (45.7cm) high
Collection: African Art
Medium: Stone

Location: United States
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This powerfully minimalist stone sculpture of a human form is a classic figure from one of the most inscrutable groups in pre-colonial Africa: the Bura. The vast majority of Bura pieces are cephalomorphic or phallomorphic, which may be combined with general anthropomorphic characteristics. Almost all Bura art is deconstructed to the point of abstraction, although this is an unusually extreme example. It comprises a columnar and unadorned “body” which swells at the base then narrows towards a slim neck. The hear is unusually angular, with a broad chin that rises diagonally, a shorter top to the head, and converging sides. As is not uncommon in these pieces, the face is dominated by a block nose that stretches from the apex of the head to the top of the neck, with a small, round eye on either side. The mouth is unusual, and is rendered as a thick line running parallel with the jawline, stopping only when it reaches each side of the face. The stone is light in colour with a patina indicating handling, age and perhaps libations. The rear of the piece is unadorned, suggesting that it was designed to be viewed only from the front – perhaps as an adorational piece or an idol.

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 range of figures is so large that it presumably indicates differing geographical and temporal trends in aesthetics within the Bura polity. Equally, similar figures with different scarifications of coiffures could imply production by a range of different workshops or areas. However, without more complete contextual information it is impossible to explore this possibility, and it is necessary to glean what we can from the art itself.

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.

Even within the remit of Bura art, this piece is unusual. This is a rare and desirable Bura sculpture, and a striking and attractive piece of ancient art from one of Africa’s lost civilisations.

- (DC.335 (LSO))


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