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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Bura : Bura Terracotta Head
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Bura Terracotta Head - DC.329 (LSO)
Origin: Burkina Faso/Niger
Circa: 3 rd Century AD to 11 th Century AD
Dimensions: 11" (27.9cm) high
Collection: African Art
Medium: Terracotta


Location: United States
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Description
This columnar ceramic sculpture with a truncated base was made by one of the most inscrutable groups in pre-colonial Africa: the Bura. It is a traditional rendering, with a flared base, a tall, plain neck and a stylised human head that is separated from the neck by a strong jawline. However, the head is highly unusual. The ears are pendulous and project from the jawline, while the face is rendered as a trio of coffee- bean forms and a short, curved nose with a pronounced septum. There is a small eminence – perhaps a beard – at the apex of the chin. The most unusual characteristic of this piece is the coiffure; it is rendered as a hatched, raised band encircling the circumference of the head, above which the hair has been formed into three blade- like crests that run from front to back (one has been damaged). If ancient African society was anything like modern Africa, the importance of hairstyle as a social marker could not have been overstated. Any onlooker would have immediately recognised the style and would have been able to identify the precise origin, social and marital status of the person depicted. The piece would originally have been designed as a decorative apex to a large ceramic vessel.

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

- (DC.329 (LSO))

 

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