This powerful anthropomorphic sculpture of what appears to be a captive woman was made by a highly inscrutable people – the Tenenku. It is a very unusual piece; most pieces pertaining to this culture are monumental zoomorphic works. It portrays a kneeling woman with an animal’s head and a prominent Adam’s apple (a male trait). The formation is powerful and blockish rather than anatomically precise and detailed. The breasts and umbilicus are highly accentuated, as is the aforementioned Adam’s apple. The head is formed roughly like that of a bird, with a flat top, a thin mouth running around the perimeter and top-mounted protuberant eyes with a crest running down from the apex of the head. The head also has posterolaterally-placed cup-shaped ears. The eyes are somewhat reminiscent of a crocodile’s morphology, but the characters are so mixed that its exact identity is uncertain. The clay is dark red with a glossy wear and use patina.
The Tenenku were one of many subunits in the Mali (or Malian) Empire, which spanned about 400 years from the early 13th century. It began as a small city-state just south of the Ghana Empire in the 11th-12th centuries, and then started to unite numerous smaller kingdoms under a single banner and with the unifying influence of Islam. At its height, it stretched across modern-day Mali and Northern Guinea – controlling about 500,000 square miles – with further influence across West Africa. Only the Mongol Empire was larger at the time.
The historical information available (written by Arab historians) is fairly comprehensive. 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’s success was based upon a then-unique form of administration that allowed communities to basically govern themselves within its boundaries. Wealth was accumulated through taxation and trade, and the control of gold from three large mines. Copper 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. The wealth thus accrued paid for some outstanding architecture and other prizes that literally put the kingdom on the (14th century) world map for the first time. However, the empire faltered and 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.
Numerous cultures were absorbed or created by the empire, including 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 isolates within the Malian hegemony means that there is little historical information about these cultures, a situation that has been exacerbated by the plundering of archaeological sites for their often outstanding artistic products.
This piece is totally obscure insofar as function is concerned. Identifying its intended usage is thus an exercise in ethnographic surmise. Victorious African tribes are historically known to have enslaved their defeated foes after battles, with particular emphasis on women and, sometimes, children. It is thus possible that this represents a “prize”. However, the fact that it is also mixed with zoomorphic features suggests that it is an interpretive piece – perhaps inferring something about the person portrayed, or alternatively expressing some legendary character from Tenenkun mythology. The notion of therianthropy (humans turning into animals) should also be considered,as this is a common preoccupation in ancient societies the world over. 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.