Having briefly swept through the museum and considered the objects on display, I decided to narrow my focus to the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas exhibit at the Met. Prior to this museum visit, I had rudimentary knowledge of African art and was interested in furthering my understanding of the people and places from which these objects originated through conducting a formal analysis.
The Met’s collection of African art covers a large geographical area, from the western Sudan south and east through central and southern Africa. Works from the collection date from the 15th to the 20th century. To give a a brief overview, galleries exhibit an array of objects, including figurative and architectural sculpture, masks, seats of leadership, staffs of office, ceremonial vessels, and personal ornaments. While wood is the primary medium, works made of stone, terracotta, gold, silver, and ivory are also on display, as are textiles and beadwork.
Among these is a 13th century figure in fired clay from the ancient urban center of Djenne Djeno situated in Mali's Inland Niger Delta region. It is one of the earliest dating artifacts in the exhibition. What I found particularly intriguing about this figure is the emotional qualities which it carried. The figure sits, its face forlorn, huddled with its leg hugged to its chest and its head tilted sideways, dropped on its knee. On its back are three parallel rows of raised marks and two parallel rows of marks punched into the clay, appearing as scarification marks or symptoms of a disease. This posture evokes a pensive and somber attitude that is reinforced by the expressiveness of the facial features: the bulging eyes, large ears, and protruding mouth.
Seated figure, Mali, Inland Niger Delta region, 13th century, Djenné peoples, Terracotta, 10 x 11 3/4in. (25.4 x 29.9cm), ceramics, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession 1981.218
Having read the plaque providing additional information about the object, I came to understand that Djenne Djeno was, in fact, renowned for terracotta productions such as this one. Djenné statuary emerged circa A.D. 700 and flourished until 1750 (thus spanning over a 1000-year period). These terracotta sculptures, though bearing some damage, largely survived due to permanence of the material. Fired clay, unlike wood, does not deteriorate over time. These sculptures express a remarkable range of physical conditions and human emotions, providing the largest corpus of ancient sacred gestures of any civilization in Sub-Saharan Africa. This particular work, given the figure's shaved head and attitude of introspection, suggests an individual in the midst of mourning practices. The object would most likely have been placed on domestic altars dedicated to ancestral or protective spirits. This figure also represents an afflicted individual. The pustules that run up and down the subject’s back, in practical terms, is due to filariose, a tropical and subtropical disease transmitted by mosquitos, which ran rife at this time. In a more conceptual sense, however, this depicted ailment is deemed to possess a deeper underlying meaning. Oral histories tell us towards the late 11th century, Djenne-Djeno begins a 200-year long period of decline and gradual abandonment, and by the 14th century, it lays completely deserted. Historians have drawn the conclusion that Djenne-Djeno declined at the expense of a new city Djenne, related to the ascendancy of the new religion, Islam, over traditional practice. The continued traditional practice of urn burial at Djenne-Djeno throughout the 14th century tells us that many of the site's occupants however, did not convert to Islam. There was resistance, and this is precisely what we see here depicted by the single figure - pain, suffering, and anguish of a people whose lives have been interrupted - a reaction to both a shift in religion and change in culture. The artist skillfully uses this medical condition as a metaphor to draw a parallel between the physical pain of illness to the mental turmoil brought about by religious and cultural conflict of the time time. That is, the figure, contorted in such a way, simultaneously conveys the knotted tension of anxiety and strife and the sublime absorption of deep prayer.
Having understood more about the context of this artifact, I was really able to stand back and appreciate its artistry. I felt that the emotion was so potent and so tangible I was able to almost vicariously experience the suffering of the supplicant; the deep sorrow felt in this mournful gesture, expressing grief over the loss of an entire region. Though its sculptor is unknown, his craftsmanship is commendable.