Bura Multifigural Stone Sculpture

SKU PF.1981

3rd Century AD to 11th Century AD


12″ (30.5cm) high x 19.75″ (50.2cm) wide




Burkino Faso

Gallery Location



This unique stone sculpture has been assigned to one of the most inscrutable groups in pre- colonial Africa: the Bura. Unlike the vast majority of their figures, which are of the deconstructed and reinterpreted human form, this is a single solid block decorated with multiple figures. The block roughly resembles a figure of “8” lying on its side, with a constriction in the dead centre, marked with what seems to be a cordage design. This results in a pair of large stone eminences, each decorated symmetrically with a large figure holding a smaller one: this has been interpreted as an adult (mother?) holding a child. The faces are elongated ovals with pointed chins and austere T-bar nose/brow complexes. Their bodies are rendered as a series of organic shapes, mainly ovals, their arms encircling each child, whose arms are seemingly spread to each side. The reverse of the piece is blank, which suggests that the object may have been intended to be viewed from one side only, presumably as a devotional object.

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: these 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.

Based on our research, this fascinating piece is unique. This is a powerful Bura sculpture, and a striking and attractive piece of ancient art from one of Africa’s lost civilisations.

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