This anthropomorphic flask is rare and mysterious, especially as the precise place of manufacture is uncertain. At first glance it appears to be made by the Bankoni people of the Mali Empire, between the 12th and 15th centuries AD. However it also bears resemblance to the little-known Cham culture, which is considerably later (c. 19th century) and based in Nigeria proper. The issue is representation. The Bankoni produce vessels that are identical in all respects to these, but anthropomorphic variants are not known. The Cham produce anthropomorphic vessels of the same general form, but they are typically much more ornate and decorated. For the time being it has been attributed to the Bankoni, as this is the most parsimonious interpretation. It has been dated accordingly
This piece is remarkably tall and – especially – long-necked. It comprises a small, globular vessel with a rounded base, an applied piece of ceramic presumably denoting a navel, two small eminences (breasts or nipples) and two slender, curvilinear arms that stem from the connection of the vessel to the neck. The clay is unadorned, except for a triangular patch of hatching on the chest, which extends over the neck. The neck is almost as long as the body, and is surmounted with a reductivist head with pierced eyes, an open, oval mouth and a nose that becomes the central crest of the trefoil coiffure. While the mouth could potentially be used for pouring liquids, the design of the piece obviates against this.
The Bankoni is strictly speaking a ceramic style, which – along with the Djenne style - was the main stylistic subdivision of the Malian Empire. The Djenne and Bankoni styles ran contemporaneously and were based around the cities of Djenne-Djenno and Bamako, respectively.
Djenne and Bankoni sculpture is highly significant in the development of West African art styles. In simplistic terms, their central preoccupation was seated, standing and kneeling human figures, in addition to equestrian and zoomorphic/anthropomorphic divertimenti. Djenne pieces tend to be naturalistic, while Bankoni sculptures tend towards elongated proportions. Owing to the popularity of these pieces, sites have been systematically plundered so we know almost nothing of their culture beyond its evident refinement. It was evidently highly socially stratified, with major markers of wealth including scarifications, jewellery, horses and prestige artefacts such as the sculptures themselves.
Objects such as this have long posed a puzzle to African art historians. They are mostly found in graves, but it is unclear whether they also had a function in everyday activities, or were made specifically as burial goods. It has been suggested that they were rattles or alternatively – for zoomorphic examples – that they represent sacrificial animals that could be “sacrificed” without losing valuable livestock. Their obvious lack of utilitarian function has led to the theory that they were devotional objects of some sort. Whatever their function, however, they are elegant and attractive pieces of ancient African art.