traditional african art from
Nigeria can justifiably be called the cradle of African Art. Terracotta artefacts from the Nok culture date back more than 3000 years, the kingdom of Ife is famous for its sophisticated bronze and clay figures from around 1200AD.
The kingdom of Benin thrived between 1500 and 1900 AD, before the infamous British invasion robbed Africa of some of it’s most admired art history.
My collection of the Nok culture and the Benin bronzes are featured separately. This part of the collection features mainly art of the Yoruba and the Igbo, two of the largest tribes in Nigeria who also have a deep heritage to the ancient populations of the Nok and Ife cultures respectively. Some experts actually compare aspects of Yoruba culture with the ancient Nok civilisation, while Benin culture and history has it’s roots in ancient Ife. Other pieces in the collection come from the numerous smaller tribes in the region.
The Yoruba people are renowned for the prolific creative output of their artists and craftsmen. This very dynamic and powerful mask was especially created for the usage by the chief alone. The bold features and the open mouth display a distinct authority. It was worn for the sole purpose of bringing good fortune and prosperity to his community. A very striking, bold, and powerful mask with raised scarifications. It is in excellent condition.
This elaborate and large mask originally stems from the Ekiti area, where annual dance festivals were held with dancers balancing large wooden masks on their heads. The masks generally show off any particular associations with the dancer. This very large headdress mask displays a woman holding a baby, next to her are two twin figures and on the other side is a horse. The rather abstract facial feature at the base is the depiction of an ancestor.
This statue displays a richly adorned woman with intricate and elaborate hairstyle, smoking on a large community pipe. In Igbo tradition, prominent males and females were often portrayed sitting on a chair. The actual base is slightly hollowed out, so the statue could have also been used as a helmet mask, but this is unlikely because of the extremely heavy weight of it. Prominent scarification marks adore body and face, with elaborate jewellery displayed around the neck..
This mask of the Mmo society embodies the spirit of deceased maidens. It is worn by men who dance to the accompaniment of musicians who sing tributes to living and deceased maidens. The mask represents the beauty and serenity of the ideal female. The elaborate hairstyle is an invented idealistic construction and not a real reflection of the typical Igbo female hairstyle. The mask is in good condition except for some very slight damage or softening on the chin area.
Gelede is the name for elaborate masquerade performances by men, held mainly in the southwestern parts of Yorubaland. This very old mask was partly broken and had been fixed in the traditional way with metal clamps, preventing the mask from splitting apart. There is also an opening gap at the top where probably additional display features were attached. This is a very powerful piece, one of my favourites. All carefully detailed features reveal an important spirit from the past. What can be gathered from the faded colours is that the main structure was natural dark wood, the face probably painted white with a red “halo” around the face.
The Igbo are well known for their numerous deity figures. Deity sculptures come in all shapes and sizes and act as intermediates to the high God Chukwu. They are usually kept in shrines at the centre of the village, close to the regular meeting or dance areas. Smaller deity figures, however were kept inside the homes, generally one for each family. This particular statue of a female deity is very unusual, with it’s youthful face and especially with the long thin legs compared to the normally squat shapes in most African sculptures. White paint was applied to the face and also to parts of the body, but as stated above, Igbo deities come in all shapes and sizes.
Very large figures with the typically much extended and over-elaborate hairstyle of Igbo statues or masks. Because of the large size, it can be assumed that these were principal deities, used for the benefit of the whole village. Deities belonging to a single family unit are normally much smaller. Even if the attention to detail is lacking, the sheer size and impact makes this pair unique and powerful.
A very unusual mask with a childlike figure resting on top of the head and with it’s hands holding on to what can only be regarded as protruding horns. I don’t know it’s exact origin and I haven’t been able to work out the exact meaning and background of the mask, but I only possess it for 40 years, so I might still get there. It certainly still intrigues me.
This statue is embellished with very heavy encrustation, which is an indication of it’s regular usage and importance to the people. It represents the ancestral mother sitting on a stool with three children. This statue was worshipped at gatherings with the men praying for fertility for their wives. The encrustation makes it look quite rough and almost abstract, but there are plenty of intricate details and markings visible through the surface. Another favourite of mine.
Ritual vessel with mother and child depicted on one side, and a male image on the other. Hooped metal currency pieces from the 18th century are attached. The addition of real money probably suggests an offering and a wish to increase the wealth of the owner. Extensive repairs were undertaken to restore the base of the vessel. This piece was for many years in possession of “The Collector”, a well knonwn traditional art dealer in Cape Town.
Large stone monolith were carved in memory of spiritual leaders. They measure in size up to 1 metre or more. The stones generally portrait chiefdom priests, who after death travelled the world beyond the grave. Many smaller stones have been found as well. These stones were also described as phallus symbols, representing the human being as phallus, or as a phallus with human features. I was told these stones originate from 17th century, but can’t confirm that.
This dramatic statue was originally part of a large and wonderful shrine configuration, dedicated to depict the virtue of beauty. It has been in the possession of Nji Idriss Mbombo since 1951, and was kept at his second homestead in Jeneter near the Nigerian border since the time he acquired it in 1951. Some statues stand out for exquisite detail and finishing, while this one impresses with it’s simple raw power. It is in excellent condition.
These figures were held in a memorial shrine. The style of the male and female ancestors are strikingly similar, with the obvious exception of the sexual parts and the hair style. The scarification marks on the forehead and the temples are identical, while the body marks are almost the opposite match between the two statues. The female has a very long neck, while the male wears a necklace. The arms were attached separately.
The Haussa live in the northern areas of Nigeria and in the Sahel region of adjacent countries. Most of them are nomads and they traditionally live in closely knit and very strict small family groups. They are strict Moslems and don’t carve any idols. My friend Salim purchased this piece in the late 1990’s on one of his trips through the area. It portrays a happy Haussa family unit, consisting of the father and two wives with three children.
The Mumuye have lived in isolation until the late 1950’s, which explains their unique artistic style which is not really seen anywhere else. Generally Mumuye figures don’t display any male or female gender. Statues like these were usually kept in huts in a family compound and were only allowed to be used by an elected family member, who was believed to have magical insights.
The Chamba made similar style statues to their neighbours, the Mumuye. This can best be seen by the portrayal of the legs. This figure is thought to be a medium that communicates with the spirits. The right side is severely damaged and was repaired the traditional way with tin sheeting. The right arm is missing completely, but as old statues go, this only makes it look more dramatic..
This is a shoulder mask. It displays the traditional long neck and relatively small head with it’s large ears and prominent ear lobes. A sharp nose, small but prominent eyes and cat’s whiskers are important facial features. Originally these masks were used at pre-war ceremonies, but nowadays they are still worn at rain making functions or any major festivities.
The Idoma live at the confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers. The style of painting the faces white is shared with the their larger neighbours, the Igbo. This mask was given to Nji Idriss Mbombo in the 1970’s in exchange for his services. Being a fertility mask, the powerful large horn can only be interpreted as a symbol of male sexual prowess.
A very well proportioned statue with the typical round head and disproportionally large ears of Tiv statues. It displays scarification on the body and forehead plus traditional marks on both sides of the mouth. There are still remnants of red paint in places, while the thick patina clearly shows large amounts of spiritual libations. Other areas around the arms and stomach are of smoothly polished wood from regular usage, reflecting the very old age of the statue. Another favourite of mine.
This is almost a replica or very similar to a very famous bronze statue of the Oni(king), displayed at the National Museum in Lagos. The oldest known Ife statues were originally made in bronze and terracotta between the 12th and 15th centuries. Probably they were carved out of wood before then, but none has survived. It is not unusual for the same theme to be repeated for centuries by different artists. The intricate detail is masterfully executed. Although the statue is relatively small and not unique, it makes a strong statement.
This rather large statue is predominently painted in white, some of the paint has eroded with time. White is the colour traditionally used to depict death which obviously will include any ancestors in Igbo sculpture. The figure displays a typical elaborate hairstyle and also prominent scarification amongst other unique details. Quite prominent is the mirror held in the left hand and also the glass insert on top, both are indicating superior wisdom and the ability to see through hidden agendas.
A remarkable ceramic sculpture. Horses and riders appear repeatedly in ancient African cultures, although horses were not the ideal means of transportation in tropical forest areas. Most equestrian statues were rather created as a symbol of prestige and a depiction of the rich and powerful, instead of a true reflection of daily life. My source told me this piece is 700 years old. If it is really that old, then it might depict invaders from the north, as it doesn’t fit in with the general Yoruba display of horsemenship.
The word Egungun means masquerade. This kind of mask was used to honour the ancestors throughout the Yoruba region. The masks generally look like a man’s head with with rabbit’s ears. The ears are reflected in the Yoruba name for the mask, ELETI, meaning “ONE WHO HAS EARS”. A GANGAN talking drum is placed between the ears and the figure of a warrior or sometimes that of an important animal is placed at the back. This mask was originally collected during the 1960’s.
The Gelede cult celebrates the power of elderly women, which is related to motherhood and earlier ancestry. Hemet masks are carved in the form of a human face, while on top of the masks all kinds of activities, symbols, or actions are displayed. This very original and colourful mask displays birds, a snake, and a knife, amongst other things. This mask was found and personally brought to South Africa by my friend Salim in the 1990’s from a small village in the Republic of Benin.
I found this head displayed on church steps in central Cape Town in 1978. I was well aware of the traditional Ife terracotta heads in this particular style. It stood out like a real treasure in between all the other items displayed and looked utterly out of place. I wasted no time and just purchased it on the spot, almost afraid someone else might get in ahead of me. Until now I don’t know if it is an 800 year old master piece or just a very good replica, but it has a special place in my collection and is genuine in my opinion.
This mask comes from the tiny village of Ogpoto. The Idoma are closely related to the more powerful Igbo and the masks share similarities like the white painted face. This mask is a link between the living and the spiritual forces. It was also used to commemorate the passing of a community member into the spiritual realm. There are number of small holes visible around the face which were used to attach the very colourful and decorative garments which covered the performer completely.
The Mumuye live on both sides of the border of Nigeria and Cameroon. Hardly any Mumuye art was discovered before 1950. These two statues come from Ngaoundere in the Adamaoua region, Cameroon. N51 and N52 are a pair and have the identical decoration. Both statues are created to be the spiritual beings who can connect with the ancestors. The statues are carved in very heavy hardwood and are in excellent condition.
Both statues are marvellously finished in the true simplicistic Mumuye style, but with extra attention to detail and are richly decorated. Even the eyes are inset with glass and there is also a glass insertion on the forehead. There is only a very slight shaping of the females breast as the only identification of the sexes. These are superb statues, especially considering that most known Mumuye fifures are extremely basic.
Igbo statues often display opposite notions like serene beauty vs bestiality, female vs male, white vs black (or red in this case). The white generally reflects the female with black or red representing the male character. In this case the sculptor gives us the impression of looking inside the cavity.
A mother and her child holding on to each other. As female characters are portrayed in white, and male characters in red or black, it can be assumed that the child is a son. Among the Igbo, statues are carved by men and painted by women.
The Nok civilisation in central Nigeria produced outstanding terracotta figures more than 2000 years ago. The bulk of the discovered statues stems from 900 BC to 200 AD, while rarer finds have been made since which extend the date to 1000 AD and beyond.
The first official recorded discovery of a terracotta head was made in 1928 in the village of Nok. More finds were made in 1942 and 1943, and eventually in 1947 the importance of these discoveries both from archaeological and historical standpoint were understood by Bernard Fagg who was working as a cadet administrative officer at the local tin mining operation and has had some archaeological training. He alerted everybody who was working in the minefields to look out for and preserve any artefacts they came across. Bernard Fagg became the foremost expert on Nok art and by the year 1977 published his complete survey of Nok art, in which he illustrated 153 pieces which belonged to the collection of the Jos museum.
Very little is known about the people who produced these outstanding sculptures. It is assumed by most experts that the figures are images of kings, queens, priests, or diviners and that they were kept and worshipped in sacred shrines, but no complete actual shrine has been discovered yet.
The figures in my collection like so many other important pieces came to me through my friend Abraham Njoya. Here is the oral history as reported by people we have seen and spoken to ourselves:
Fulani tribesmen have been occupying large tracts of Northern Nigeria and Northern Cameroon for many years. Haman Saidu Daru was one of them who with his enlarged family unit had been occupying an area in Guindiri, a village in the Plateau State of Nigeria. As all nomads do, they were continuously searching for better pastures and water for their cattle, as well as good soil for planting the season’s crops for their survival, and they had found an excellent location.
One day his wife went digging a hole to fit clay pots containing cassava tubers for making tapioca and flour for food when by chance she unearthed some terracotta artefacts. She alerted her husband who, alongside all the family members, carried out the excavations and uncovered a large variety of sculptures. This discovery must have occurred in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s based on the family’s movements thereafter.
Haman later went on to consult with indigenous local villagers about 20km from his settlement. They had never seen or heard of similar finds and could not identify with any of the figures. They advised him that he was extremely fortunate as this was a gift from the spirits of prosperity, and he should treasure them and take them along wherever he went and keep them safely. They added that they can’t take them from him as the spirits had not shown them to any of them. Haman Saida Dawu was said to be about 55 years old at that time.
After he died, the family with all their belongings led by the eldest son Haman Dawud moved on to the area of Gemba in the current Adamawa state of Nigeria, but because of disputes with the local people they continued on to Cameroon in 1935 passing through Ngaoundere, then to Tibati, where it was relatively calm and conducive to settle down with his cattle, donkeys and horses, whose numbers had dwindled through the twists and turns of nomadic life.
His son Garba Haman later became the Imam of Tibati. For the ordination ceremony, which happened in 1949, many important people were invited, one of them was Njitoyap who came with his wife and one of his sons carrying gifts to attend the ceremony. Njitoyap was a prominent teacher and had spent the last 15 years in Ngambe in Tikar, which shares a border with the Bamoun Kingdom and the Kingdom of Tibati.
When Njitoyap was ready to return home from the ordination ceremony, Imam Garba apparently took him aside to a special room and presented him with gifts, including a large number of Terracotta figures. Most probably it wasn’t that simple and there was quite a bit of bartering involved, but nobody knows the exact details. Imam Garba told Njitoyap about the discovery of his grandfather and how he was asked to treasure them. He went on to explain that he has to let them go, because he had become a cleric and should not be keeping idols he preaches against. “I could not” he added give them just to anyone, as accusations of religious infidelity might be levelled against me in accordance with provisions of the MALIKI ISLAM LAW. I have to give them to someone outside the kingdom of Tibati.”
Njitoyap’s sons from his latest wife, a Bamoun woman who he married later in life, as he wanted his sons to be brought up in Bamoun tradition, are the official heirs of Ntjitohap’s treasures. It is his sons, Momanji Mounchili and Njifon Mgbatou, then in their seventies plus a paternal uncle, who decided because of some serious family tribulations, to try and pass on some of the treasures. It was Momanji Mounchili who came to South Africa and contacted Abraham Njoyo, who he was referred to by the Bamoun community to assist in raising some money.
All the sculptures have their own unique and different details and probably are distinct individuals , but there is definitely a common design pattern, as can be expected as they were all found at the same place. I don’t call them Nok figures as they were found in a different location and they have their own distinct features.
1. Most people are familiar with the Nok culture, whose figures were discovered mainly in the 1950’s and later. After thorough testing it was established that they were produced around 200 – 500 BC, some were even older. The location of Nok is on the Jos Plateau which is in the vicinity were these figures originate. While there are huge similarities , there are also profound differences. The style is more solid and robust and also more naturalistic. None of the figures look alike, yet their style suggests that they come from one source.
2. Fulani tribesmen have been occupying large tracts of Northern Nigeria and Northern Cameroon for many years. Haman Saidu Daru was one of them, who with his enlarged family unit had been occupying an area in Guindiri, a village in the Plateau state of Nigeria. As all nomads do, they were continuously searching for better pastures and water for their cattle, and good soil for planting the season’s crops for their survival. They had found an excellent location.
3. One day his wife went digging a hole to fit clay pots containing cassava tubers for making tapioca and flour for food when she came across some terracotta artefacts. She then alerted her husband who alongside all the family members carried out the excavations and uncovered a large variety of sculptures. This discovery must have happened in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s based on the family’s moves thereafter.
4. Haman later went to consult with indigenous local villagers about 20 km from his settlement. They could not identify with any of the finds nor had they ever seen anything similar. He was told that he was extremely fortunate as this was a gift from the spirit of prosperity, and he must take them along wherever he goes and treasure them. They added that they can’t take them as the spirits had not unveiled them to any of them.
5. Haman was said to be about 55 years old at that time. After he died, the whole family with all their belongings led by the eldest son Haman Dawud moved on to the area of Gemba in the current Adamawa state of Nigeria, but because of dispute with the locals, they continued onto Cameroon in 1935, passing through Ngaondere, and then to Tibati, where it was relatively calm and conducive to settle down with his cattle, donkeys and horses whose numbers dad dwindled through the difficult years.
6. Haman Dawud’s son, Gaba Haman later became the Imam of Tibati. For the ordination ceremony which happened in 1949, many important people were invited, one of them was Njitoyap who had travelled with is wife and one of his sons, carrying gifts and to attend the ceremony. Njitoyap was a prominent teacher and had spent the last 15 years in Ngambe in Tikar, which shares a border with the Bamun Kingdom and the Kingdom of Tibati.
Male or female figure with bended knee sitting on vase shaped chair. Right knee pulled up, right arm resting on leg. Left arm hanging down the side. Both hands are holding some tool implements. Large adornment around neck.
Male figure in typical kneeling position with one knee raised on vase like structure. Wearing a penis sheath. The adornment around the neck has broken. There is also visible damage to both knees. Pieces of grass grown out of damaged right arm.
This statue shows very few similarities with typical Nok statues. The body is very straight, barely modelled. The legs are not even shown and the arms are rather small, seemingly part of the body. The eyes are less prominent and the coiffure is hardly existent. The penis sheath reveals the male identity.
A slightly smaller head than the others in the collection, but in the same bold style. The terracotta material is slightly coarser than on the other statues, but the detail and crsftsmanship are superb.
This large altar piece shows the Oba Ewakpe who reigned from 1701 to 1712 with 3 slaves and a leopard. The Oba is portrayed as a huge figure, demonstrating his all embracing power and stature. He is wearing a European style hat, which originates from early Portuguese traders. Around the sides of the base are various symbols and figures of fallen enemies to emphasize the kings power and achievements.
This monumental altar piece commemorates the king’s (Oba) achievements. The king sits on a bench accompanied by 3 warriors or personal guards. Next to him are 2 decapitated heads and all around the base are fighting scenes with slain enemies and many more decapacitated heads. This statue clearly illustrates the all consuming power of the Oba.
This oversized leopard’s head is actually a symbolic portrait of the king. The leopard is idolised as the creature of royalty by the Edo speaking people in Nigeria, as well as by the Fon people, who are the largest ethnic group in the Republic of Benin. As such the king is often compared to the leopard. The ability to create large bronze statues stems originally from the Yoruba people of neighbouring Nigeria who also live in the eastern parts of the country Benin.
This altar piece shows the Oba (king) with 2 body guards and 2 slaves. In typical Benin tradition the king is the largest figure and the slaves are the smallest, indicating the individual hierarchy, importance and power. Like all Benin bronzes this piece was created in the “lost wax technique”. This means there can and will only be one original. In the front section of the base the surface is slightly blurry, it looks like some of the wax had flown out.
A similar and very famous female statue is in possession of a National museum in Berlin, and has been used as the cover image of the well known publication “Africa, the art of a continent”. This figure features the same outstretched arms and other similarities, but the style is different. The Berlin figure is more upright with unusual straight legs, while this statue is more traditionally shaped with bent legs and a more rounded figure. Another similar statue is at the museum in Lagos.
This is a real master piece. The artist was able to give the figure a completely un-African stance, with the way the feet and legs are placed, and the action placement of the shortish arms. Portuguese traders have been regular visitors to Benin since the 1600’s. A statue of a Portuguese soldier similar to this one was displayed on top of the roof of the royal palace in the 17th century. 8 smaller soldiers are positioned around the sides of the base.
These statues were only created for the royal palace, where the new Oba (king) would dedicate an altar to his predecessor. We don’t know if and when this statue occupied the Oba’s altar, as generally various groups of craftsmen and metal workers were competing and each group presented their own casting. The statue is not a physical replica of the deceased Oba, but rather a youthful spirit to give strength and guidance to the people.
Carvings of leopards or full size leopards heads were the sole property of the Oba (king), as the leopard was regarded as the royal animal. Many bronzes were cast between the 15th and 19th centuries, and many subjects were repeated all over, as the artists and metal workers were competing against each other to find favour with the Oba. Like almost all Benin bronzes it was created in the lost wax casting method.
The kingdom of Benin has been inhabited by the EDO people for many centuries. They worshipped a God OSANABUA who was almighty. He had a son OLOKUM who brought fertility and prosperity to the people. This mask was made for various rituals to receive special favours from him. Below the eyes are slit holes which allowed the wearer to see different colour lights during the rituals. These light reflections were interpreted as direct messages from OLOKUM.
The IBIBIO live in an area around the Cross river in Nigeria, stretching in the East across the borders into Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.The are headed by a traditional leader called IKPAISONG who was assisted by members of the EKPO society. The members are messengers of the spirits who wore this mask for the blessing of the Gods for a good harvest, fertility and prosperity, but also as protection against evil spirits.
Exquisite Bronze head with facial striations, wearing a crown. Most bronze statues from Ife were created between the years of 1200 and 1500. The tradition of the creating Kings heads goes back longer, but no older statues have been discovered yet. The rings around the neck are decorative enhancements, and are still conidered as attributes of beauty by todays Yorubas.
One of the greatest artistic achievements of sub-saharan Africa are the bronzes and terra cottas of Ife. Holes around the hair line and around the mouth were created for either beard or veil attachments. The reasons for the striations is still unclear, as some Ife masks are pefectly smooth, while others show heavy weals. They are probably types of scarifications which changed with the fashion of the times.