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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Bura : Bura Terracotta Phallic Vessel with a Face
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Bura Terracotta Phallic Vessel with a Face - PF.5813 (LSO)
Origin: Burkina Faso/Niger
Circa: 3 rd Century AD to 11 th Century AD
Dimensions: 16" (40.6cm) high x 5" (12.7cm) wide
Collection: African Art
Medium: Terracotta

Location: United States
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This beautifully intricate terracotta phallomorphic figure was sculpted by one of the most inscrutable groups in pre-colonial Africa: the Bura. The figure is deliberately ambiguous; it could be interpreted as a phallus, with the top shaped to resemble the circumcised area. Alternatively, it could be a reductivist anthropomorphic figure, wearing a tall, ornate hat. In either case, it is unusually detailed. The apical section is demarcated from the body/shaft by a double line of raised dots, and is further subdivided into quarters by the same device. The only body morphology that is visible is the protuberant umbilicus. There is a small, austere and geometrically reduced face directly below the apical section, with small, raised eyes, a triangular-section nose and a coffee-bean mouth. The area in which these features are contained is almost the only undecorated part of the piece (in frontal view). The body is covered with diagonal, vertical and transverse bands and circular patches of raised dots, probably designed to represent keloid scarifications. The designs stop sharply at the lateral aspects of the piece (assuming the face to be the front), leaving the rear of the piece essentially bare. This may indicate that the piece was designed to be viewed solely from the front, perhaps as a devotional piece.

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 truly outstanding Bura piece, and one of the most intricate and impressive such sculptures we have seen. While we may not understand its significance, this is a striking and attractive piece of ancient art from one of Africa’s great lost civilisations.

- (PF.5813 (LSO))


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