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Lost History: the terracotta sculpture of Djenné Djenno

The video explores a unique terracotta figure from African galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The figure's unusual posture and design spark discussions about its possible representation of illness or affliction. The figure's origins and context remain largely unknown due to looting, but it offers valuable insights into pre-colonial African art. Seated figure, 13th century, Mali, Inland Niger Delta (Djenné peoples), terracotta, 25.4 x 29.9cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) Speakers: Dr. Kristina Van Dyke and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Zucker] We're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in their African galleries, looking at this extraordinary terracotta figure. - [Van Dyke] We have a seated figure who's pulling one knee up and wraps his upper body around that knee, turning his head in this uncomfortable way to the side on his knee. - [Zucker] And the way that the clay was shaped creates this snakelike quality that allows the body to turn and move in a way that seems to defy any kind of internal skeletal structure. - [Van Dyke] I think that this object could represent somebody who is ill. When I first started studying these objects I was very drawn to, frankly, how weird they are. - [Zucker] And expressive. - [Van Dyke] There's something fantastical about them. What I saw as very highly imaginative but the longer that I've studied them the more questions I've developed around what exactly is being represented here. - [Zucker] We should say at the outset that we know very little about these figures. This is one of approximately 1000 objects that have been found. Most have been looted and so we have very little firm archeological context for these objects. - [Van Dyke] They are a perplexing group of objects. We have a very wide date range for them because we have very few objects that were found in context. But they pose a tough question to us because lacking context, we can never really fully understand how they were used. However, they constitute an incredible resource for us because they're one of the few large corpuses we have of objects before the colonial period. So they absolutely demand study. - [Zucker] If these are figures with a kind of affliction, if this is an expression of pain or perhaps sorrow, it stands in such contrast to so much sculpture where the ideal figure is represented. - [Van Dyke] And even within this corpus of 1000 objects there are objects that are very strong. There are horse and riders, for example, the paragon of strength during this period of the trans-Saharan trade. - [Zucker] And by trans-Saharan trade you're talking about kingdoms that developed trade networks that crossed the desert, that moved from Sub-Saharan Africa through to the Mediterranean coast. - [Van Dyke] We think that these figures emerged in the context of the collapse of the first major empire, the empire of Ghana. We know that there was a big population movement into the inland Niger delta and that there was a lot of population pressure around this period when these objects seem to emerge in the historical record. The next empire to emerge is the Empire of Mali and the founder of that empire, Sundiata Keita, is born lame and has to learn to walk and overcome this in order to become this powerful leader who unites the kingdom of Mali. - [Zucker] This is such a complicated moment because you have the introduction of Islam, you have older traditional religions, you have the building and collapsing of empires. - [Van Dyke] And you also have an incredible movement of goods and people. You have traders coming down to Timbuktu, you have another group of traders coming up to the city of Djenné and you have the Niger river which is the super highway of the trans-Saharan trade. I would argue it's also a disease factor. - [Zucker] And so these could be representations of disease, either those that have contracted disease or perhaps those that are trying to ward it off. In this particular sculpture we have the most elaborate back. We see these forms that stand off the back that almost look like soft buttons and we also see these circles that have been incised in rows in between the button forms. And it's all so regular and decorative that they could be pustules, perhaps a kind of abstract representation of a pustule or of a buboe, of a blister of some sort but they also could be some kind of scarification, they could be deliberate. - [Van Dyke] Are we seeing a number of symptoms loaded onto a figure, that kind of representation of illness in a big sense? Is this a depiction of various particular symptoms of a particular illness and could this kind of stylization on the back, could that be a kind of response, an attempt to ward off illness? It's almost impossible to know. But people who overcome illness, we can imagine might also be seen as very spiritually powerful. - [Zucker] If we look at the torso there is this flaring from the narrowness of the neck into this very large belly and very strong legs. - [Van Dyke] I think other scholars might even argue that they don't see illness here and that just see a very expressive and very creative representation of the human body. But I would go back to the point that you're making about looking at the body swelling and the way that the torso swells and we move down into these very substantial thighs but as you move down the rest of the leg you really see a kind of shrinking in the calf and then these very tiny feet. This is the value of having put together a very large corpus. We've a lot of comparative material and I frequently see this kind of shriveled lower limb and even have see it to the point of great elasticity where the limb becomes very plastic and is even thrown over the shoulders which, to me, looks like something very much akin to polio. Again, raising the question, are we seeing a representation of arrival of particular diseases that may have come through the trans-Saharan trade. - [Zucker] The fact that we have so few find spots, that we have so little archeological eveidence to go with these figures makes interpretation difficult in and of itself. So this is a real conundrum. When these figures were first discovered they were being excavated using scientific archeological methods but very soon, looters took over and the vast majority of objects in museums today are coming from looted sites which means we don't have a find spot and we don't have archeological evidence. There's another layer though, which is that in order to reduce further looting there's been a kind of a moratorium on scholarship about these objects to help reduce their attractiveness to the market and to private collectors. - [Van Dyke] It's an understandable position and as you say, rightly, it's a conundrum. However, the objects that are out are out and I would argue that we must find a way to make these objects speak. We have to ask them different kinds of questions than the kinds of questions we would ask if they were in an archeological context. - [Zucker] We can't pretend that they don't exist. (piano music)