This highly decorated phallic ceramic vessel was made by one of the most inscrutable groups in pre-colonial Africa, the Bura. In common with many other Bura pieces, is it essentially columnar with a slightly flared base, a slightly fluctuating profile and a rounded tip. The entire surface except for the very base is decorated with meandriform and geometric incised designs, divided into sections by bands of incised lines. Interestingly, the top 1/5 of the piece – which would be the head of the penis – is the only part to be decorated with horizontal lines (i.e. perpendicular to the piece’s long axis). It is perhaps possible to detect the general proportions of a human figure merged in with the decorations, especially with the small eminence that usually marks the navel or nipple/breast in Bura sculptures. If so, however, it is so deconstructed as to be unrecognisable. The large size of the piece is exceptional.
The Bura are a true paradox: almost nothing is known of this shadowy Nigerian/Malian group. Radiocarbon indicates that it existed between about the 12th to the 16th centuries, roughly contemporary with – and perhaps related to – the Djenne Kingdom. From the few controlled excavations there have been, we know that they were sedentary agriculturists who buried their dead in tall, conical urns, often surmounted by small figures. 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. 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 that 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.
Whatever its purpose or function, it is a striking and attractive piece of ancient art from one of Africa’s great lost civilisations.