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Seated Figure (Djenné peoples)

Met curator Yaëlle Biro on humanity in Seated Figure by the Djenné peoples of Mali and the Inland Niger Delta region.

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 C.E., 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.

View this work on metmuseum.org.

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Video transcript

This figure was created in the twelfth century. It’s a terracotta created in a society that disappeared about 1400 AD. We have so little evidence about that culture. The sculpture itself is the evidence. It seemed to have been quite an egalitarian society. There were no rulers. This figure really shows this. It’s a humble person. The humanity appears so naked. It’s stripped of everything and it’s just this pure, human emotion that everybody can relate to. If you start turning around the figure, this back is filled with these odd markings that really reminds you of the flesh of the individual, and how it can be marked by diseases and time, or marked on purpose. The posture is at the center of the feeling that it is expressing. It is so compact. The figure is folded into himself, almost built around that empty space between the torso and these intertwined limbs at the front. Is it bending over? Is it more in a static position of contemplation and lost in its own thoughts, breathing hard, possibly? It’s almost like a child’s pose of being distressed and then curling up in a corner. It is really expressing sadness and possibly grief. It is a bundle of emotions. The face, tilted as it is towards the side, is so expressive, with the mouth open and the nostrils marked and the ears marked, so it just has all these apertures almost as if it is breathing and hearing what is around it. What is so important to me is what it tells us about history. A humble, simple individual tells us about an entire civilization. In the end the whole figure is a reminder of humanity at large.