Bura Terracotta Phallic Vessel Topped by a Head

SKU SP.460

3rd Century AD to 11th Century AD


20″ (50.8cm) high




Burkino Faso

Gallery Location



This striking phallomorphic and anthropomorphic sculpture was sculpted by one of the most inscrutable groups in pre-colonial Africa: the Bura. The form is unusually in terms of profile and detailing. The main body is columnar, with a flared base, a thick middle section and a tapering apex. It has a discernable front, with a vertical three-rank bar and a double chevron-like decoration of raised dots running up to a round eminence (usually considered to the navel). These raised markings are generally considered to represent keloid scarifications. Above this there is a set of raised bumps, which proceed around the circumference of the piece. There is a triple horizontal band of stippling right beneath the neck. The head is small and simplistic; its form is unusual in relation to what is known of Bura sculptures. The general form is domed, slimming down to a nose which more resembles a snout, with a tiny, underslung jaw, slit eyes and exceptionally large ears with defined rims. There is a panel of stippling on the forehead, again representing scarifications, and eminences on the head that presumably indicate a crested coiffure. The rear of the figure is almost completely plain, which implies 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: 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.

This is a remarkable and unusual Bura piece, and a striking and attractive piece of ancient art from one of Africa’s great lost civilisations.

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