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Djenné Terracotta Torso with Snakes
Torso with Snakes
Carol Thompson headshot
Carol Thompson
Fred and Rita Richman Curator of African Art

Like the Niger River that snakes across the Sahel of West Africa, curving to and fro across the red earth, serpents wrap around this exceptionally animated, elegant terracotta sculpture of a female form. The graceful curve of her torso, though fragmentary, conveys an extraordinary sense of movement. As here, snakes in African art are generally considered benevolent, protective, and life giving and are associated with water.

Made of red clay, as is the Great Mosque of Djenné (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), this terracotta fragment may date to as early as the thirteenth century, the era when the Great Mosque was built. Founded more than 2,000 years ago and one of the oldest cities in sub-Saharan Africa, Djenné is known for its distinctive earthen architecture. Its market was an important hub in the trans-Saharan gold trade network that crisscrossed West Africa centuries ago. Djenné’s bustling market remains an important cultural crossroads today.

Djenné Artist (Mali), Portrait of Sogolon, Mother of Sundiata, Founder of the Empire of Mali, thirteenth–sixteenth century, Terracotta

The terracotta sculpture in the High’s collection has been the subject of intensive scientific and scholarly study, as well as a source of artistic inspiration. The fragment was transported to Grady Memorial Hospital for x-ray imaging by computerized tomography (CT), overseen by Dr. John Malko, Maureen Graves, and Dr. Arthur Fountain.  The imaging showed that the clay matrix contains small inclusions, probably added temper to help with forming and firing.  The x-ray imaging also revealed that the sculpture is solid and thus it has no hidden cavities.  Small core samples were then removed from break edges by conservator Michelle Savant of the Atlanta Art Conservation Center.  These samples were sent to Oxford Authentication Laboratory in England for thermoluminescence (TL) analysis. Results indicated that this scultpure was created between 500 and 800 years ago, or between 1214 and 1514, at the height of the Mali Empire, one of the largest kingdoms the world has ever known. 

Researchers and collaborators worked together to make CT scans of the delicate sculpture.

The Oxford Authentication Lab provided a thorough report on the terracotta samples they tested.

The CT scans allow us to study multiple 360-degree views of the sculpture.

This cutting-edge scientific research was essential to Anne-Marie Bouttiaux and Marc Ghysels’s scholarly investigations in preparation for their 2015 Tribal Art article “Scrofulous Sogolon: Scanning the Sunjata Epic.” The article identifies the High’s sculpture as a representation of Sogolon, mother of Sundiata Keita (ca. 1217–1255), the founder of the Mali Empire. Immortalized in the great Epic of Sundiata (“The Lion King”), Sogolon had supernatural abilities, including invincibility. She was renowned for subduing her enemies by bombarding them with poison-tipped porcupine quills. This sculpture shows a vertical mound projecting from her torso where she stored her lethal artillery.

Also known as the Buffalo Woman, Sogolon transforms into her ferocious animal double in Burkinabé filmmaker Dani Kouyaté’s feature film The Heritage of the Griot. Set in Ouagadougou, the capital of modern-day Burkina Faso, the film uses flashbacks to tell the story of the Mali Empire’s founding through a man’s conversation with his grandson.

Multiple views of the High’s Djenné bust appear in a 2011 sketchbook by Magdalene Odundo, a contemporary artist and internationally renowned ceramicist whose magnificent vessels are featured in an exhibition at the High until October 15, 2017. Universal and Sublime presents a selection of over twenty ceramic vessels Odundo created over more than three decades. To provide insights into Odundo’s artistic process, the exhibition includes sketchbooks and selected works on paper. The Djenné bust, with its graceful and elegant forms—like Odundo’s own vessels—is so animated that it seems nearly to dance.