Students will learn to apply inquiry skills to solve problems by studying how people have answered key questions about this 500-year-old-plus sculpture from West Africa.
Teachers can use this issue of MIA Creative Connections to support student learning in a variety of disciplines, including visual arts, world history, and the nature of science and engineering.
This rare wooden sculpture of a horse and rider made over 500 years ago in West Africa, during an age of great kingdoms, raises a lot of questions that require a wide range of inquiry and thinking skills to figure out possible answers.
This feature explores a few questions about the sculpture and some of the ways people have gone about trying to answer them. Even if we don’t always come up with absolute or so-called “right” answers, it is important for everyone to ask questions and seek answers using many tools and techniques. Students, historians, artists, teachers, and scientists have a lot to learn from one another. Sharing our ideas with others is a good place to start when seeking answers or solutions to problems.
This wooden sculpture of a horse and rider from Mali in Africa raises a lot of questions! What do you notice first? What else do you see? What do you wonder about? You probably noticed that the horse is very small—so small, in fact, the man has to bend his legs to ride it. Think about whether the rider and his horse could get very far with his feet dragging on the ground. No! So why might the artist who made this sculpture show it this way?
People who study the art and history of Africa have not come up with a single “correct” answer to this question, but have suggested at least three explanations by using historical inquiry skills, including drawing on historical knowledge, closely observing the sculpture itself, using scientific tools, and applying an understanding of how artists communicate ideas.
Early Arabic documents written by travelers to the great kingdoms of West Africa emphasize the importance of the court’s cavalry, describing riders dressed just like this one. Some writers also describe the horses as being small.
Horses were likely introduced to West Africa through northern travelers from Carthage and Libya. Ancient rock art in Africa shows that some horses existed south of the Sahara Desert before the arrival of horses from the north; nonetheless, their presence in West Africa during the period under discussion can be attributed to Islamicized Berbers traversing the Sahara Desert to establish trade routes and convert native populations to Islam around 800 CE. Their success in establishing a powerful presence in West Africa owed much to their mastery of small, native horses, known as Barb or Berber horses.
The Berber horse, a native of North Africa, is seldom taller than 14 hands (most horses range from 15 to 16 hands, representing the physical length of a typical human hand). The breed, in spite of its small size, is strong. Centuries ago its ability to perform even in harsh environments must have been highly valued. It might have been especially well suited for long-distance travel and, later, battle; it is nimble, responsive to riders’ touch of the reins, and willing to obey commands without hesitation.
The small scale of the horse in this sculpture might be a realistic representation of these small, sturdy horses and their importance to the expansion of trade, wealth, and territory during the age of Africa’s great West African empires.
Another explanation for the small scale of the horse is artistic emphasis: the artist might have wanted to show the rider as the sculpture’s most important aspect. Emphasis is a principle of art used by artists to draw attention to a particular aspect of an artwork.
Horses in this region required a great deal of care and maintenance; as a result, only people associated with the king, his court, and his cavalry owned them. In many parts of Africa a mounted horseman symbolizes great power, a potent fusion of human intelligence with animal strength. Though the identity of this particular rider is unknown, his body language, fancy dress, and stock of weapons indicate his wealth and command as a leader, much like the men described by Arab visitors to the Mali kingdom. The artist has focused the most naturalistic detail on the rider’s emblems of rank—his weapons, costume, and jewelry.
The artist skillfully rendered the rider’s weapons as well; he sports a dagger on his left arm and holds a bow in his left hand, and a cylindrical quiver, supported by straps fastened between his shoulder blades, hangs on his back. These symbols reinforce his status within the court system. The horse could be another emblem of his prestige. The artist might have emphasized the man by enlarging him relative to the horse as a way to communicate the man’s status.
Emphasis is a principle of art that assigns one element of an artwork dominance over another. An artist can emphasize one feature of the artwork, often to focus the viewer’s eye and add visual impact. As in this sculpture, emphasis is frequently achieved by means of contrast. Here, in addition to the contrast in size, the artist made the horse relatively plain and its limbs and head tube-like, compared to the rich, expressive details of the man.
Another explanation for the small size of the horse is materials: perhaps the artist was limited by the size or dimensions of the wood from which he carved the figure.
To answer this question, one must verify that the object is, in fact, carved from a single piece of wood. This knowledge is also useful for curators, the people who collect, take care of, and display artworks at a museum; it helps them confirm the authenticity of an object. Curators at the Minneapolis Institute of Art have had the sculpture imaged using X-ray and CT technology to confirm that the sculpture derives from a single piece of wood.
Knowing the sculpture comes from a single piece of wood might help us understand the artist’s decision to make the horse so small—if the goal was to carve both figures from one piece. However, research into clay (ceramic) sculptures of the same subject reveals that these objects also depict the man much larger than the horse. Thus, one suspects the discrepancy in size of horse and rider was a deliberate choice by the artist, not a decision determined by the wood’s size.
Yet, another artistic decision—lowering the horse’s face rather than raising it—appears to have been influenced by the size of the wood. In ceramic sculptures made around the same time and place as this one, the horses’ heads tilt up or jut straight out. The size of the wood used to make this sculpture may well have limited the artist’s ability to carve the horse’s posture similarly.
Looking at this artwork and studying clues in an attempt to figure out why the horse is so small compared to the rider teaches us the importance of observation, asking questions, and doing research (even scientific research) to the process of historical inquiry.
Additional questions about this artwork, including who made it and why, also remain largely unanswered. This might seem surprising, given the ample research historians have done on the geography, migration patterns of different populations, and comparisons to other artworks.
This wooden sculpture shares many features with a group of clay (ceramic) sculptures from the Inland Niger Delta and, more specifically, the Bandiagara plateau. In these sculptures, the riders all wear similar embroidered pants (note the flower design on the rider’s pants), necklaces with hexagonal beads, and bracelets and anklets. They all wear daggers on the left forearm and a quiver (to hold arrows) strapped on their backs. They all have the same lines around the eyes and rows of small dots on their temples.
Historian Bernard de Grunne examined these facial scar patterns to determine a possible common clan; he arrived at the Kagoro, of the Soninke people, who migrated to the plateau during this time period. The rows of small bumps on the figures’ temples refer to a particular nut that the Kagoro Soninke specialized in cultivating. Ancestors of the people who made this sculpture were powerful rulers, hunters, and religious leaders who supported the courts prior to moving to the Inland Niger Delta and Bandiagara plateau.
The purpose or use of this sculpture remains unclear. Scholars have suggested that perhaps the object, with its unusual-shaped base, served as a stopper for a large clay pot or a container made from a big gourd. It also might have been used in ceremonies, as a staff to top a very large pole. Future research may lead to a better understanding of its use.
Africa, an immense continent more than three times the size of the United States, has an amazingly rich history of fabulous kingdoms. Knowledge of Africa’s great empires (loose feudal confederations of related groups of people) comes primarily from Arabic chronicles and from oral tradition. The first great empire was the kingdom of Ghana, which occupied much of the western region of the Sudan. This empire prospered from about 800 to 1050 CE, drawing its strength in part from lucrative trans-Saharan trade routes transporting gold, ivory, and other materials to Europe.
An illustrious general, Sundiata, established the next great empire, Mali, around 1235. By taking over parts of Ghana, he gained the prime position for trade on the Niger River Delta. Between 1312 and 1360, the Mali empire reached its height of power under the leadership of two great leaders, Mansa Musa and Mansa Sulayman. These rulers steadily expanded Mali by conquering people over vast territories, including land that is today part of the modern nation of Mali—a distinct country of the same name. The stability of the great empire, which extended 1,500 miles across Africa, depended largely on the strength and achievements of its armies.
A third empire, the kingdom of Songhai, rose simultaneously with the Mali empire. Dating from roughly 1350 to 1600, it extended farther eastward.
These empires developed into intricate political, social, and economic societies. Intense commerce along the caravan routes gave rise to important trading cities. Records left by Arabic travelers and a few archaeological excavations around the inner Niger Delta region reveal the magnificence and wealth of cities such as Timbuktu to the north, and Djenne (jen-nay) to the south. An 11th-century chronicler wrote about the glory of Ghana, and a visitor to Mali in 1352 described the incredible use of gold in the capital city of Djenne. These large cities supported elaborate cultural centers and extravagant courts.
Djenne was home to community settlements for centuries before attaining prominence as a hub of commercial routes, which extended to North Africa. The delta, where the Niger and Bani rivers intertwine, served as rich fishing grounds and fertile lands for crops thanks to the annual flooding.
This sculpture of a horse and rider made in West Africa over 500 years ago gives us many ideas to explore and patterns to discover. Following in the footsteps of historians, art historians, scientists, art educators, and others, we soon realize the value of closely observing, asking questions, sharing impressions, and seeking answers using many tools and techniques. We all stand to learn a lot by sharing our ideas with others!
1. What other questions do you have about this sculpture? How might you go about answering them? Who might you talk to help you answer them? What might you read?
2. Pick an object in your home or classroom that you would like to know more about. Write down your questions. Who might help you answer them? What materials might you read? What related objects would you consider? What other problem-solving approaches might you take?
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