Mali Empire || Works of Art || Resources || Back to: NMAfA past exhibits

Works of art in most of Africa serve to support life-sustaining activities, physical as well as spiritual life. We think of these activities as agriculture, religion, human fertility and well-being, education, governance and authority. The rural peoples living in the areas of the ancient empires were mainly farmers and herders who lived in self-governing communities. Each community or ethnic group had its own artists and crafts people to create works of art for rituals and secular activities and objects for daily use, such as farming tools, pottery, furniture or clothing.

Artists who served the royalty were organized into kin-based guilds--ironworkers, potters, weavers and griots--and were commissioned to create works for the court.

These sculptures from the country of Mali were created sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries (see time-line). The equestrian and archer hold the distinction of being among the oldest works in the museum's collection. We do not know how they were used. The primary reason for the survival of this sculpture is the permanence of the material--fired clay or terracotta. Unlike wood, fired clay does not deteriorate over time, although it can be broken. Although both sculptures have sustained some damage, enough of their original forms remain for us to recognize the subject matter and appreciate the artistry.

They were unearthed near Djenne in the Inland Delta region of the Niger River, the heart of the Mali Empire between the 13th and 16th centuries. Archaeological evidence indicates that this region had highly developed urban centers as early as 200 B.C.

These sculptures represent warriors dressed in military gear. They are equipped with quivers (cases to hold arrows) on their backs and knives strapped to each of their left arms. The horse is equipped with a bridle and ceremonial adornment around its neck. Early Arabic documents attest to the importance of the court's cavalry and describe riders wearing wide-legged pants, close-fitting caps and anklets and carrying quivers.

The equipment and adornment on these sculptures provide evidence of another kind. Mansa Musa's cavalry was reported to have been 100,000 strong. The manufacture of all this equipment requires a prosperous economy with access to a wide variety of materials, either through indigenous production or through trade to supply the craftsmen with the materials to make the equipment. Iron bridles, for example, were excavated at Kumbi Saleh (see map), possibly the capitol of the ancient Ghana empire (c. 700-1100) and now in the present-day country of Mauritania.

The equestrian is noteworthy because of its depiction of a horse, an animal not indigenous to Africa. Because horses in this area required so much care and maintenance, their presence usually indicated a society with the wealth and resources to ensure their well-being. The museum's sculptures offer visual evidence of this once great empire.