This powerful zoomorphic sculpture was made by the Tenenku people, a unit within the mediaeval Malian Empire. It is a classic of the genre, with a stocky body and thick legs, a slim neck encircled with a ring, and a upturned head woth concave eyes, a human nose, large ears and a half-open mouth. The surface of the clay is unadorned, and bears only intermittent gray, white and black patination indicative of both firing and age. The identity of the animal is somewhat obscure, although the collar would suggest domestication; the highest probability is a horse, although a dog – and 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 is defined as a Madinka entity – it was originally named Manden Kurufa – and began life as a small city-state just south of the Ghana Empire in the 11th-12th centuries. At its height, the empire comprised numerous smaller entities (notably the “Twelve Kingdoms”) united under a common banner with the ever-present influence of Islam. 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 stretched across modern-day Mali and Northern Guinea, but its influence extended across the entire region and controlled the lives of millions of people. At its height is controlled almost half a million square miles – only theMongol Empire was larger at the time.
The historical information available (written by Arab historians) is fairly comprehensive, although most concerns king lists and the increasingly Machiavellian manner in which lineages competed for power and control over the burgeoning empire. Its success was based upon a then-unique form of decentralised administration that allowed quasi-autonomous governorship within its boundaries. Wealth was accumulated through taxation and trade, and the control of gold from three large mines within their territory. All nuggets were automatically the property of the mansa (king), and had to be surrendered to the treasury which would return an equivalent amount of gold dust – the trading standard. Coper 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.
Spending was also notable. Mansa Musa on his famous trip to Mecca, spent the entire contents of the treasury (on an Andalusian architect to beautify his palaces and mosques, among much else) and attracted so much attention that Mali was included on 14th century world maps for the first time. The empire eventually 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.
The cultures absorbed or created by this entity were multifarious, and include 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 osolates within the Malian hegemony means that there is little historical information about the cultures that produced them, a situation that has been exacerbated by the plundering of archaeological sites for their often outstanding artistic products – which is, in fact, often the only source of knowledge about these peoples.
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 magicoreligious 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. Its sheer size – in a period when large artworks are uncommon – seems to argue against it being a domestic piece, and it is instead more likely to be a public or centralised object which perhaps stood in an elite residence or religious building. Whatever its significance, it is a striking and powerful piece of ancient African art.