Horse and Rider

October 1, 2003

During the months of June and July, East Campus is enlivened by the sound of lively African drums warming up American Dance Festival participants, who land solid, flat-footed on the Earth, their movements synchronized by the emphatic pulsing of the beat. The experience enhances one’s viewing of the Duke University Museum of Art’s figural sculpture Equestrian Figure, by Lamidi Fakeye, a Nigerian master-carver, who is carrying the traditional forms of his Yoruba people into the twenty-first century.

Just as African music emphasizes each beat, each part of this sculpture is treated with equal emphasis; the details for the horse and rider, for example, have the same visual “weight.” That visual equilibrium represents moral balance and moderation, according to Robert Farris Thompson, a scholar who views dance and language as essential to the understanding of the intellectual attitude expressed in African sculpture.

Thompson has found that correct physical and mental deportment are considered requirements for most peoples of Africa to be seen as vital, strong, and driven. He interprets the upright posture of this rider, therefore, as a symbol of a strong personality—walking (or riding) with a straight back is the ultimate sign of self-respect and dignity. And the evenly distributed weight of the rider on the horse, as well as the wide-legged stance of the other figures, are reminders of stability and balance as well as buoyancy and suppleness. Their very stillness is a representation of tranquility of mind, purification of self, calmness, discretion, silence, and beauty—values for a good life.