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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Bura : Bura Stone Figure
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Bura Stone Figure - DC.2000 (LSO)
Origin: Burkina Faso/Niger
Circa: 3 rd Century AD to 11 th Century AD
Dimensions: 12" (30.5cm) high x 4.5" (11.4cm) wide
Collection: African Art
Medium: Stone

Location: United States
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This ¾ length stone sculpture is an exceptionally rare figure made by one of the most inscrutable groups in pre-colonial Africa: the Bura. The vast majority of Bura pieces are cephalomorphic or phallomorphic, and are additionally deconstructed to the point of abstraction. Fuller length figures, especially those with any detail below the neck, are vanishing rare. This piece is rendered in a manner that superficially resembles ancient Cycladic statues, comprising a very thin (front to back) body, a large head with a dominant nose, a scaled-down body, an impassive expression and the hands folded on the torso. The lower abdomen and the legs are tapered away to such an extent that it is likely to have been a spike that enabled the piece to be stuck in the ground. The shoulders are broad, giving way to slim arms – each with an armlet on the biceps – and the hands clenched on the chest. The presence of hatching marks on the body suggests that it represents textile, although no specific details are present. The slim neck is encircled with a double necklace with a downward point at the front. The face is essentially conical, with a flared lower section with corners denoted by the tubular ears. The face is dominated by the long nose which reaches 2/3 of the way down the face, tapering to flush with the face as it meets the apex of the head. The eyes are prominent circles (ceramic versions usually have “coffee-bean” eyes), the mouth small and oval. The face is decorated with incisions that probably denote keloid scarifications or tattoos. These include diagonal hatching from the apex of the forehead to the top half of the nose, and two quadrilateral patches of scarring on the cheeks. The back of the figure is plain except for a faint line which joins the ears; this may denote the level of the coiffure, but as there is no more detail added it is possible that the figure might have been painted or otherwise detailed when it was made. In any case, the relative bareness of the rear tends to imply that the piece was designed to be seen from the front, perhaps as a devotional object or idol.

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 exceptionally rare and desirable Bura sculpture, and a striking and attractive piece of ancient art from one of Africa’s lost civilisations.

- (DC.2000 (LSO))


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