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Bernard de Grunne on Djenné-Jeno figure

by Entwistle on 23 November 2016

We are delighted to announce that the noted writer and fellow dealer, Bernard de Grunne, has written a scholarly essay on our Djenné-Jeno terracotta figure, entitled 'Illness and Cure in a Djenné-Jeno Seated Figure'...

Brussels, November 2016

A remarkable statuary in clay, which I have called the Djenné-jeno Style, flourished between A.D. 800 and 1700 in the region of the Inland Delta of the Middle Niger region in Mali. The vast majority of the figurative corpus includes primarily terracotta figures, as well as some related wood and metal sculpture. This Paleo-Style is one of the most important achievements of the Mande oikumene from the original Greek meaning of a “civilized” world and whose centre of gravity is today in the sacred shrine of Kangaba in Mali. This artistic style from the Mande is a true “Gift of the River”, to paraphrase Michael Coe,[1] appearing between the Bandiagara plateau and the vast alluvial flood plain of the inland Niger delta, spreading over 160.000 square km and delineated by the great Niger river and its affluent, the Bani.

In the Mande epic tradition, the spiritual dimensions of the most famous and celebrated Soninke figure, King Sunjata Keita, are expressed through his power of sorcery and his ability to communicate with ancestors through sacrifices of humans and animals upon “power objects”.  These “power objects” from the Mande, whether in clay, bronze or wood, belong to the artistic and technological world of Mande blacksmiths and potters emerging from numerous West African ethnic groups such as the Soninke, Sorko, Dogon and Bamana.

The ancient terracotta Djenné-jeno statuary shows a remarkable variety of human figurines represented in sixty-six different sacred postures, making it the single richest source of religious gestures in Africa.[2] Two remarkable iconographic tropes to emerge within the Djenné-jeno figurative corpus are illness and serpents. This observation is particularly interesting when compared to the simultaneous and related wooden and metal corpuses, where illness is almost nonexistent and serpents rare.

The seated Djenné-jeno figure presented here shows a combination of fascinating iconographic details: large spherical pustules on the sides of the thighs and the base of the neck, an elongated neck with a twisted head, an emaciated and scrawny torso with a visible rib cage and a large snake standing vertically in front of the figure.

The American scholar Dr. Kristina Van Dyke has written a fascinating essay about this little studied aspect of Djenné-jeno iconography connected to the representation of a number of diseases and epidemics which swept West Africa in the last thousand years.[3] Within the entire corpus of 647 Djenné-jeno figurative works, she has singled out a “sick” corpus comprising 225 figures (or 42% of the sample) that have visible symptoms of illness, of which the most represented in this corpus are pustules covering the entire body, undoubtedly smallpox, an infectious and highly contagious disease caused by the variola virus.

It should be noted that one can also find a few terracotta figures with representation of illnesses in the statuary of the Nok culture from the plateau region in central Nigeria and dated between B.C. 800 and A.D. 500.[4]

As to the meaning of snakes, Van Dyke has found at least 200 figurative works with herpetological symbolism.[5] She suggests that some of these snakes could represent parasitic worms coming out of the mouth, ears, nose and even vagina of some figures. I have also underlined the ancient symbolism attached to snakes starting with the founding myth of Dinga, the first king of the Soninke Wagadu empire circa A.D. 800, who fathered many children and one large snake called Wagadu Bida.[6] Snakes, thus, are connected to ancestor worship but could also relate to the treatment of diseases represented in the seated figure analyzed here. In the ancient oral histories of the Wagadu and Mali empires, illness was framed as a spiritual test and overcoming it, a mark of spiritual power for both the afflicted and their healers. Such beliefs persist into the present. 

The magnificent Djenné-jeno work of art must  thus be part of a style  that is an art of tragic necessity, as noted by Professor George Kubler in reference to Aztec art.[7]

The Djenné-jeno civilization of the ancient Mande and its many artistic forms are to the art history of West Africa what the Olmec culture, born in the swamps of San Lorenzo, are to the arts of Mesoamerica, the Nile to Egyptian culture and the flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates to the great Mesopotamian civilizations of the Middle East.

Bernard de Grunne

[1] This poetic description was coined by Michael Coe in his study of the Olmec San Lorenzo complex, Cfr. Michael Coe, « Gift of the River: Ecology of the San Lorenzo Olmec”, in E. Benson, ed., The Olmec and their Neighbors. Essays in  Memory of Matthew W. Sterling,  Washington D.C. Dumbarton Oaks Research and Library, 1981, p. 15-20

[2] Bernard de Grunne, Djenné-jeno. 1000 Years of Terracotta Statuary from Mali, Brussels, Mercatorfonds & Yale University press, 2014

[3] Kristina Van Dyke, “Disease and Serpent Imagery in Figurative Terra Cotta Sculpture from the Inland Niger Delta, of Mali” in Bernard de Grunne & Kristina Van Dyke, Mande. Trésors millénaires. Ancient Treasures, Brussels, 2016, pp. 5-25

[4] fr Nozais, J.P., Boullier, C., & Boullier, G. « Un malade vieux de 2500 ans.. étude nosologique d’une statue de la culture Nok, Nigéria », in Bulletin de la Société de Pathologie Exotique, Tome 93, 2000, pp. 291-293

[5] Kristina Van Dyke, “Disease and Serpent Imagery in Figurative Terra Cotta Sculpture from the Inland Niger Delta, of Mali” in Bernard de Grunne & Kristina Van Dyke, Mande. Trésors millénaires. Ancient Treasures, Brussels, 2016, p11

[6] Bernard de Grunne, Terres cuites anciennes de l’Ouest Africain, Louvain-La-Neuve, 1980, pp. 27-29

[7] Georges Kubler, “Preface”, in H.B. Nicholson, Art of the Aztec Mexico, Washington D.C. National Gallery of Art, 1983, p. 14
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