Aesthetics

The statues classified as Djenné are of a very particular stylistic diversity. There are quite large equestrian statues, very finished, very elaborate, representative of kings, warlords, glorious warriors, nobles, and ancestors. The horse, introduced to Africa during the second millennium B.C., had become an emblem of power and wealth. These statues are rigid, hieratic, and made to inspire respect.

In quite another register the Djenné statues, contrary to traditional African statuary, show a certain flexibility of the body. The positions are asymmetrical, the bodies are twisted, contortive. There is a great freedom of movement which is particular to this art, and it is quite original compared to traditional African figuration, from any era or in any material.

The Djenné statues represent men and women, in squatting positions or kneeling, with the hands on the knees or thighs. Human representations sometimes integrate zoomorphic elements. There are different types of pieces; riders and their mounts, busts, seated or kneeling individuals. Some are elaborately decorated, others are stripped down.

The representation of faces, though very free, is codified enough: almond eyes, strong jaw, and almost cubist noses, worked in large rectangular marks.

In certain statues the subject covers his eyes, or his mouth, as if it was holding in a cry, some hold their stomach, naked, lying, bound, suffering, or ill. Many seem to be expressing pain.

The bodies sometimes show heavy scarifications, scabs, pustules, or blisters... perhaps due to filariose, a tropical and subtropical disease transmitted by mosquitos. The adult form is a white, thread-like worm which enters the human through the skin at night.

Are these statues dedications, memories, a type of questioning, or recantations? We cannot say for sure... In any case, the snake is omnipresent in Djenné statuary, it slithers on bodies, entering and leaving bodily openings: the nose, the mouth, the ears, the sex. Here, it is often mixed with the member, infiltrating it, coiled up... It decorates the top of shaven craniums or bald people. It is sometimes associated with pregnant women. Is this a relation to the creation myth? Immortality? We do not know anything of it and yet we long to. As a terrible alternative, does this snake represent this very mobile white worm which gives this disease which eats the individual from the inside? Looking at the statues more closely, the eye is not the same when one knows that the degenerative disease involves oedemas reaching the size of a pigeon egg...

The function of the Djenné statues remains uncertain: they do not take part in ritual funerary but were perhaps embedded in walls or under floors of the houses over which they were to have a protective role, to perpetrate an ancestral bond, to be used as expiatory icon, to better fight off disease or suffering...

How did this culture die out? The statues that have been found are often mutilated and broken. Their fragmentary state suggests a willful destruction, systematic, brutal, ritualistic... But when? By whom? For what? The silence is enigmatic and almost disturbing.