Bankoni
Bougouni region, Mali
Horse and Rider and Four Figures
Probably late 14th/early 15th century

Terracotta
Horse and Rider: 70 x 21 x 48.5 cm (27 1/2 x 8 1/4 x 19 in.); Figures: 28.5 x 14.6 x 19.3 cm (17 1/4 x 5 3/4 x 7 5/8 in.); 46 x 14.7 x 19 cm (18 x 5 7/8 x 7 1/2 in.); 44 x 10.2 x 18.5 cm (17 1/4 x 4 x 7 1/4 in.); 28.5 x 12.7 x 18.4 cm (17 3/8 x 5 x 7 1/4 in.)
Ada Turnbull Hertle Endowment, 1987.314.1–5

These sculptures are among the oldest-known art objects from the western Sudan. They include a mounted horseman and a large seated male figure, believed to have been made by one artist, and one smaller male and two female figures that were probably made by a second artist. The horseman wears a knife sheath on his left arm and a string of bells, or pendants, around his waist. The seated man carries a quiver slung over his back and a dagger at his left shoulder. Bracelets, necklaces, belts, and incised geometric patterns, perhaps representing scarification, decorate all of the objects. While daggers and quivers indicate hunting and military power, the other forms of adornment suggest elevated status.

The tubular shapes, rounded edges, and fluid contours of the figures reflect the properties of the soft clay from which they were formed. The term Bankoni is used to refer to figures of this style. The name comes from the village where archaeologists unearthed one such object, about six miles from Bamako, the present-day capital of Mali. Today this region is home to the Bamana people, whose ancestors made these works. Archaeologists have found Bankoni-style terracottas buried in ritual mounds, though these figures, like the majority of similar works in other museum collections, were not excavated in controlled circumstances. These figures were probably made as a group and are believed to have been intentionally broken and then buried together within a mound. The figure on horseback, rigid and regal upon his animal, appears to be the central figure in the group. Horses were brought to West Africa by Arab merchants in the 7th century. To this day, images of figures on horseback signal power and status in the western Sudan, where cavalry played an important role in enlarging the boundaries of the great empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai.