This monolithic terracotta bust was sculpted by one of the most inscrutable groups in pre-colonial Africa: the Bura. It is rendered as a schematic ithyphallic form: a columnar body with a slightly everted base, a flaring outline and a rounded head with a slight eminence at the apex. The body details are nugatory – small eminences denoting the breasts/nipples, and another denoting the umbilicus. The face is framed by large ears with pierced lobes. The face is highly unusual within the corpus of Bura artworks, with a large triangular nose running into a small, arched brow enclosing tiny pierced eyes. The mouth is rendered as a large and prominent protuberant pout. The face is undecorated, which heightens its austere sculptural power. The rear aspect is plain, implying that it might have been intended to be viewed from one side only – perhaps as an adorational/shrine figure.
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.