This haunting figure huddles with its leg hugged to its chest and its head dropped on its knee. It simultaneously suggests the knotted tension of anxiety and the sublime absorption of deep prayer. Created over 700 years ago, in the Inland Niger Delta region of present-day Mali, this elegant work's intense emotional immediacy blurs the boundaries of time and place.
This terracotta sculpture comes from a site called Jenne-jeno, the oldest known city in sub-Saharan Africa. Jenne-jeno flourished in the ninth century A.D., but declined and was abandoned by 1400. Items of cast brass and forged iron, clay vessels, and figures like this one survive. They testify to what scholars contend was a richly varied and highly sophisticated urban society.
A few controlled archaeological digs provide only the vaguest outlines of the original significance of the art of this time and region. Recovered terracotta figures are frequently quite detailed. They include jewelry, clothing, and body ornaments such as the parallel columns of bumps and circles on the back of this work. Sometimes they cover the entire body and seem to represent the pustules of some dreadful illness. Sculptures like this one may represent ancestors or mythic characters, or might have served as guardians. Here, the figure's shaved head and attitude of introspection resemble mourning customs still practiced by many cultures in sub-Saharan Africa. It is possible that the earlier peoples of the Inland Niger Delta had similar ritual methods to express grief over the death of loved ones.