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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Bura : Bura Terracotta Head
Bura Terracotta Head - DC.319 (LSO)
Origin: Burkina Faso/Niger
Circa: 3 rd Century AD to 11 th Century AD
Dimensions: 10.5" (26.7cm) high
Collection: African Art
Medium: Terracota

Location: United States
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This well-formed ceramic sculpture of a human head was made by one of the most inscrutable groups in pre-colonial Africa: the Bura. It is a columnar piece with a broken base, implying that it may have once been part of a larger object. The neck/torso is widest at the base, slimming towards the middle then thickening again towards the head into which it flows seamless without any indication of jawline. The rounded face is minimalist and expressionist, with coffee-bean eyes and mouth, a short, hooked nose with pierced nostrils, and triple keloid scarifications on each cheek. Unusually, the piece has a beard – or perhaps a chin – applied directly below the mouth. The ears are lunate and mounted inferior to the head’s widest point. The coiffure is very unusual, comprising a triple raised bar of hatched incised clay running diagonally over each eye, and then deflecting backwards before stopping abruptly at the head’s apex. There are three small eminences atop the coiffure in each side. The back of the figure is plain, which implies that the piece was designed to be seen from the front, perhaps as a devotional object or idol. The clay is an even, well-baked orange-red.

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.

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

- (DC.319 (LSO))


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