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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Tenenkun : Tenenkun Terracotta Zoomorphic Figure
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Tenenkun Terracotta Zoomorphic Figure - PF.3281 (LSO)
Origin: Central Mali
Circa: 14 th Century AD to 16 th Century AD
Dimensions: 14.5" (36.8cm) high x 8" (20.3cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Terracotta

Location: United States
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This powerful zoomorphic sculpture was made by the Tenenku people, a unit within the mediaeval Malian Empire. It is a classic of the genre, although it has a rather more gracile body than is usual (while still stocky) and very thick legs. It has a slim neck encircled with a ring, and a small head bearing protuberant ears, bulging eyes and a half-open mouth on a pointed snout. The surface of the clay is unadorned; the tone of the clay is lighter than usual, although the patina is still good with irregular patches of gray and white. The identity of the animal is somewhat obscure, although the collar would suggest domestication; the highest probability is a horse, although a dog – or perhaps mythological animals comprised of various elements from real creatures – cannot be discounted.

The Mali (or Malian) Empire spans about 400 years from the early 13th century. It began as a small city-state just south of the Ghana Empire in the 11th-12th centuries, and then started to unite numerous smaller kingdoms under a single banner and with the unifying influence of Islam. At its height, it stretched across modern-day Mali and Northern Guinea – controlling about 500,000 square miles – with further influence across West Africa. Only the Mongol Empire was larger at the time. The historical information available (written by Arab historians) is fairly comprehensive. Almost all Malian emperors trace their ancestry back to Bilal, Mohammed’s personal Muezzin, one of whose seven sons is said to have settled in the area. The empire’s success was based upon a then-unique form of administration that allowed communities to basically govern themselves within its boundaries. Wealth was accumulated through taxation and trade, and the control of gold from three large mines. Copper was also used as currency. Salt was the other main form of currency within – and beyond – the empire, and was revered even more than gold in the southern regions, where salt is very rare. The wealth thus accrued paid for some outstanding architecture and other prizes that literally on the (14th century) world map for the first time. However, the empire faltered and collapsed through a combination of internal intrigue and fragmentation caused by multiple inheritance of power. Much of their territory was inherited by the Bamana/Bambara people.

Numerous cultures were absorbed or created by the empire, including the Bura, the Djenne, the Koma, the Bankoni the Djenneke and the Tenenku. The outstandingly diverse range of material culture reflects this fact. However, the fact that they were technically social isolates within the Malian hegemony means that there is little historical information about these cultures, a situation that has been exacerbated by the plundering of archaeological sites for their often outstanding artistic products.

This piece is totally obscure insofar as function is concerned. Identifying its intended usage is thus an exercise in ethnographic surmise. If a horse, it may reflect a reflection of wealth or an aspirational aim, for horses are traditionally owned by social elites. It could thus be a religious or devotional piece (such as an altar), an offering, or perhaps a figure used in magico- religious rituals to attract prosperity. Alternatively it could be made purely for a grave offering to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. If a dog, it could be a standard grave offering or an altar piece. It is smaller than some examples, and may represent a domestic or secular piece although a more centralised role cannot be discounted. Whatever its significance, it is a striking and powerful piece of ancient African art.

- (PF.3281 (LSO))


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