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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Bura : Bura Terracotta Sculpture of a Head
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Bura Terracotta Sculpture of a Head - PF.5565 (LSO)
Origin: Burkina Faso/Niger
Circa: 3 rd Century AD to 11 th Century AD
Dimensions: 6.75" (17.1cm) high x 4.5" (11.4cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Terracotta

Location: United States
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This reflective terracotta head was sculpted by one of the most inscrutable groups in pre- colonial Africa: the Bura. It is rendered as a slim columnar neck running seamlessly into a round face that is extremely slim from front to back (see lateral view). The face is angled upwards as if the piece was designed to be viewed from above. The ears are large and low-slung at the point where the neck joins the jawline. The very base of the neck is ringed with a small rim; this would imply that the piece is intact, and was not part of a larger item. The face is dominated by a long nose that runs from the apex of the head almost as far as the coffee-bean mouth (which matches the eyes). There is a transverse band that almost connects the ears and the apex of the nose, behind which there is a series of incised lines implying some sort of textile headwear. This is a rare variant for Bura pieces. There are small eminences implying keloid scarifications on the bridge of the nose, and groups of scarifications beside each eye.

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: these 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.

Whatever its purpose or function, however, it cannot fail to impress in its monolithic simplicity. This is a striking and attractive piece of ancient art from one of Africa’s great lost civilisations.

- (PF.5565 (LSO))


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