By William Dewey
Pennsylvania State University (formerly University of Iowa)

MaliDjenné style

Embracing couple


H. 18 cm (7 3/32”)

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.451

The excavated contexts where sculptures were found at Djenné include: a pair of figures deliberately buried within the walls near an entrance, perhaps implying a “protective” function; other figures placed with what seem to be ritual accoutrements in the floor of a nonhabitation building, that building then purposefully destroyed and the site used for something else; and human and animal clay appliqués placed with sandstone slabs outside a blacksmith’s house (McIntosh 1989: 82). These represent a variety of contexts that can only be called “religious” at some risk. To this list we can tentatively add funerary contexts, because many figures are reportedly from large funerary pots, into which bodies are interred, or from man-made earthen mounds (tumuli) rising above the Niger River floodplain. None have been scientifically excavated. This embracing pair seems to mourn someone’s death, but we will never know exactly what the context of use was.