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Equestrian Figure:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
This sculpture of a horse and rider from the Djenne region of Mali is one of the oldest extant wooden objects from sub-Saharan Africa. Because of the humid tropical climates of much of Africa, few wooden pieces over one hundred years old survive. This sculpture is one of only a small number of wooden sculptures, dating to the 16th century or earlier, that were preserved in the relatively dry cliffs of the Bandiagara escarpment, high above the Inland Niger Delta region.

X-rays have shown that the entire figure is carved from a single piece of wood. The species is Erythrophloeum africanum, one of the hardest woods in Africa. The MIA had two samples from this sculpture radiocarbon tested by different laboratories. The first placed the piece between 945 and 1235 A.D., and the second, between 1320 and 1650. Radiocarbon dating is used for dating organic materials such as wood. Since all living things contain a fixed portion of radioactive carbon 14 and inert carbon 12, dating is possible through very accurate measurements of those two isotopes. When organic material dies, the radioactive carbon begins to decay. In 5730 years, one half of the radioactive carbon is gone; this is referred to as the half-life of carbon 14. Radioactive decay does not proceed steadily, so a series of measurements must be taken on each sample and the results calculated statistically. The date is determined with a "standard deviation" to indicate the limits within which there is a two to one chance it lies.

The second great empire of West Africa, the Mali Empire, was founded in the 13th century by the legendary king, Sundiata. He took control of the remains of the Ghana Empire and enlarged the territory. The Mali Empire had numerous cities supporting great wealth and an elaborate, sophisticated court life. (The Mali Empire covered vast territories including land that is today part of the modern nation of Mali, but they should not be used synonymously.) Intense commerce along the routes of caravans that transported gold, ivory, and other goods to the Mediterranean gave rise to many important trading towns, such as Timbuktu and Djenne. There had been a settlement at Djenne in the Niger Inland Delta for hundreds of years before it attained importance as a main link in the commercial network which extended to North Africa. The delta, where the Niger and Bani rivers meander and intertwine, was important because of its rich fishing grounds and its great fertility due to the annual flooding. The vast depression of the floodplain was periodically transformed by the seasonal rains into an immense marsh. Around it are barren natural cliffs and humanmade tumuli.

The rider in this sculpture is considerably larger than the horse and he is described in greater detail. The size of the man's figure in relation to the animal's has been greatly exaggerated to indicate his power and importance.

The rider has an elongated head with broad, protruding eyes, high cheekbones, full lips, and a trim beard that juts from his chin. His face is marked by delicate scarification consisting of three rows of small dots on both temples and concentric lines around each eye.

The rider wears short pants bearing a floral motif and a skull cap strapped on under his chin. The figure's necklace, made of hexagonal and larger circular beads, reveals a pendant similar to bronze ones found at archeological sites in the Inland Niger Delta. The horseman carries his weapons on the left side: a short bow in his hand and a dagger strapped to his arm. The quiver fastened between his shoulder blades appears to be held in place by ropes tied around his chest. A narrow apron tied to his lower back rests on the rear of the horse.

The small horse has unnaturalistic tubelike limbs and head and only its bridle is detailed. Although donkeys were present in Mali at that time and have sometimes been depicted in sculpture, the mount is clearly a horse without saddle or stirrups.

Since 1943, when the first archaeological discoveries were made in the area near Djenne, many clay and metal objects have been unearthed by the rains, by the digging of wells, by archaeologists, and especially by local treasure hunters. The most common archaeological finds are referred to as Djenne terra cottas since many were found at the ancient city or near it as grave goods in the humanmade tumuli. Terra cottas are also found elsewhere, particularly in the burial sites located in the cliffs.

The broad range of objects found includes large figures of warriors mounted on horses or donkeys, kneeling male and female figures, humans seemingly covered with disease pustules, groups of figures surrounding a larger female, and most frequently, humans covered with snakes. It is believed that all of these probably had a ceremonial function. The Equestrian Figure and several other wooden pieces were probably found in the nearby cliffs of the Bandiagara escarpment, which have also yielded examples of ancient metalwork and cloth.

Careful study of the early history of the various groups who populated the Inland Niger Delta and the Bandiagara Plateau has revealed a close relationship between the Soninke, Dogon, and Sorogo (Bozo) peoples. This relationship was expressed in their art as well as in their myths. When the Djenne sculptures were first discovered, they were attributed to the Dogon people. However, Bernard de Grunne proposes that several of the sculptures, including the Equestrian Figure, be attributed to the Soninke Kagoro people. (de Grunne 78-96.) The Soninke Kagoro appeared in the area long before the Dogon.

The MIA Equestrian Figure is close in time and very similar to a group of terra cotta horsemen found in the Inland Niger Delta. Fragments of at least 20 more which have been unearthed have been dated by thermoluminescence to a period from 1240-1460 A.D. Eight wooden statues have also been dated by carbon 14 to approximately the same time. This group of statues made from wood or terra cotta shares many stylistic traits.

The Kagoro subclan of the Soninke, among others, left the imperial court of emperor Sunjata rather than convert to Islam, and probably lived in the delta region at Djenne for a time. There, where clay was abundant, they created terra cotta equestrian figures. After their subsequent migration to the Bandiagara plateau, where clay was not available, they began to use wood to form their sculptures.

De Grunne supports his attribution by noting that the spherical scar patterns on the sculptures are like those of the Soninke Kagoro. This pattern refers to their most important crop, the bambara nut. He also notes a significant difference between Dogon and Soninke equestrian figures; the Dogon sculptures depict the horses as larger than their riders and wearing saddles, whereas those sculptures he attributes to the Soninke show the riders as larger and the horses without saddles.

The exact meaning of such equestrian sculptures is unknown but may relate to myths or historical events. The figure may represent a warrior or other court official of the Mali Empire since only people associated with the court were privileged enough to ride horses. De Grunne suggests that the mounted figure might represent one of the sacred ancestors of the Soninke Kagoro clan, who were powerful rulers, master-hunters, and religious leaders.

In the ancient empires of West Africa, horses were associated with wealth, kingship, and prestige and represented power in several realms: political, military, legal, and mystical. Some rulers even handed down legal decisions while on horseback. Horses were rare in African empires south of the Sahara, and only kings and their cavalries were allowed to possess them. Horses were probably first introduced to the African continent by people from Carthage and Libya, who were later followed by other equestrian people from the east. Archaeological evidence shows that horses were sacrificed and buried with royalty in areas just north of the Niger Delta as early as 1000 A.D.

Bows and quivers, symbolizing membership in powerful hunting associations, seem to have been widely used in ritual ceremonies.

The function of the sculpture, with its peculiar mushroom-shaped base, remains unclear. Archaeologists have suggested that perhaps the piece served as a stopper for a large calabash (gourd) container or a clay pot, but the great weight of the sculpture suggests otherwise. It may have been used in ceremonies, perhaps as a staff-top for a very large pole.

Claerhout, A., Ancient Terracotta Statuary and Pottery, Djenné, Mali, Dessers, Antwerp, Grunne, Bernard, "Heroic Riders and Divine Horses: An Analysis of Ancient Soninke and Dogon Equestrian Figures from the Inland Niger Delta Region in Mali," The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, 66, pp. 78-96, 1983-1986. McIntosh, Susan and Roderick, "Finding West Africa's Oldest City," National Geographic, 162:3, September 1982.McIntosh, Susan and Roderick, "Terracotta Statuettes from Mali," African Arts, 12:2, pp. 51-53, 1979.Roy, Christopher, Art and Life in Africa: Selections from the Stanley Collection, University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City, 1985.Salanon, Rene, "Terre-Cuite Djenné," Connaissance, 335, pp. 25-32, January 1980.Willett, Frank, Treasures of Ancient Nigeria, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1980.

Use on the following tours:

  • Highlights of the Collection
  • African Art

Compare this with the Djenne terra cotta figure. What stylistic characteristics link the two pieces? Point out the similar facial style and the bands on the wrists.

Horse and Riders are found throughout the history of art in many different cultures. Compare this to a 20th-century work, Marini's Horseman or to the German 15th-century Rider Aquamanile. Ask the children to come up with a number of adjectives to describe what feelings the works convey. How do the two (or three) differ in feeling?

Compare this to the tapestry, Heralds on Horseback (48.13.5). What role do the horsemen play in this tapestry compared to the Equestrian Figure?

Compare this to other African works in the gallery. What do they have in common and how do they differ?

On a Highlights of the Collection tour focusing on Dress in Art, compare the dress of this figure to other distinguished people from various times and places, such as:

  • Winged Genius
  • Burgomeister Tryp
  • Madame Aubry
  • Kuan Yin

(To name only a few of the many possibilities.)
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Source: Docent Manual entry for Mali, <i>Equestrian Figure,</i> (10th-14th century), The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009