This powerful and unusually-detailed terracotta head was sculpted by one of the most inscrutable groups in pre-colonial Africa: the Bura. The neck – which is truncated – is encircled by two transverse bands that may be intended to represent collars/necklaces. The face is an unusual shape – a pinched neck widening gradually to a broad, flat face framed by crested coiffure decorated with hatching. The face is also a format that is not standard for the Bura. The eyes and the mouth are “coffee-bean”, the nose comparatively short rather than the elongated bar that usually joins forehead to jawline. The forehead is decorated with a trefoil arrangement of incised scars, with one further scar running vertically lateral to each eye. The lower lip is attached to the necklace (?) by a raised bar which may represent keloid scarifications; similar scarring is present on each side of the neck. The ears are dish-shaped and vertically tall. The breakage at the base of the neck implies that it mighty have once been part of a larger 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.