Kneeling Figure with Serpents (Primary Title)

Unknown (Artist)

12th-14th century
inland delta of the Niger River, Djenne Region, Mali
Overall: 14 × 10 × 12 1/2 in. (35.56 × 25.4 × 31.75 cm)

The Niger River has been a channel of culture and trade for several thousand years. Between today’s cities of Djenne and Timbuktu, in Mali, the Niger forms a broad inland delta, a fertile region where western Africa’s earliest cities were established. Terracotta sculptures unearthed in this region, such as this figure with serpents, attest to Mali’s ancient and sophisticated artistic heritage.

Serpents are important symbols in the art and myth of this region: they occur in stories about the founding and safety of villages and the protection of warriors. Here, eight serpents twine around a hunchbacked figure; a ninth snake either enters or leaves the mouth. Although the figure’s gender is unclear, the two serpent heads on the chest may refer to female breasts. The absence of a beard, a feature commonly found on male figures, further suggests a female identity.

Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund
Spirit of the Motherland. September 1994. May 2000.
Daniel Shapiro. "The Ban on Mali's Antiquities: A Matter of Law." African Arts XXVIII no. 4 (1995): 45-49.
Image released via Creative Commons CC-BY-NC

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