Since the 1940s, low-fired ceramic figures and fragments such as this have been unearthed at various sites throughout the Inland Niger Delta region, an area that once had highly developed urban centers. These works are among the earliest known surviving art forms in sub-Saharan Africa. The makers were from the various peoples in the region, but it is not known whether they were men or women. Using a mixture of coarse clay and added grog (crushed pot sherds), the potters modeled the figures by hand. Some were modeled in separate parts and fitted together. Most surviving examples are solid, but a few are hollow and built with clay coils. The surfaces are polished and covered with a red slip (clay wash). These massive works are among the largest known terracotta figures created by sub-Saharan African potters. By the 15th or 16th century, environmental and political events caused the urban centers of the Delta region to be abandoned, and the art tradition did not survive.
Research, including local oral traditions, indicates that all ethnic groups in the Delta region used these figures. The earliest known written reference to them occurs in a letter of 1447. In it, a visiting Italian merchant remarked that the figures were kept in sanctuaries and venerated as representing the deified ancestors of famous founding rulers of the region. The elaborate dress of the figures suggests ceremonial military attire, and they may represent warriors who were once allies of the Malian emperor Sundjata Keita (c. 1210-c. 1260). Based on stylistic comparisons with similar figures, these works can be tentatively dated to between the 13th and 15th centuries.
Standing male figure of an archer with a quiver slung diagonally across his right shoulder in back. The figure's lower right arm and hand are missing as is his right foot.
Karl Heinz Krieg, Neunkirchen, Germany, 1972-1973 (fragments)
Emile M. Deletaille, Brussels, 1972-1973 to 1986
Exhibition, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., installed September 20, 2016–August, 27, 2019
Pavilion, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., October 2, 2002
DJENNE: Une Ville Millenaire au Mali, Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Leiden, December 1, 1994-August 27, 1995
Cole, Herbert M. 1989. Icons: Ideals and Power in the Art of Africa. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, p. 94, no. 105.
De Grunne, Bernard. 1980. Terres cuites anciennes de l'ouest africain/ Ancient Terracottas from West Africa. Louvain-la-Neuve: Universite Catholique de Louvain, p. 84, no. I.14.
Freyer, Bryna M. and Christine Mullen Kreamer. 2010. "The Collection of the National Museum of African Art Smithsonian Institution." Sculpture Review LIX (1), p. 20.
Kleiner, Fred S. 2008. Gardner's Art Through the Ages: A Global History (13th edition). Cengage Learning.
Kleiner, Fred S. 2009. Gardner's Art Through the Ages: A Global History (13th edition). Cengage Learning, p. 399, no. 15-7.
Kreamer, Christine Mullen. 2003. " A Tribute to Roy Sieber: Part 2." African Arts 36 (2), pp. 16, 19, no. 19.
National Museum of African Art. 1999. Selected Works from the Collection of the National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, p. 114, no. 1A.
National Museum of African Art. 2007. 2007-2008 School Calendar: Featuring the new Let's Read about Africa and the Sounds of African Music programs. Museum calendar. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, February 2008.