Nigeria, and indeed other black African places might have seemed a very backward and savage place for early European conquerors, but there is certainly no doubt that the quality of art they encountered impressed them greatly.
Concerning some particularly impressive brass works adorning the Oba’s palace in Benin,German Felix von Luschan, Die Altertumer von said in 1919: “These Benin works stand among the highest heights of European casting. Benvenuto Cell(a top sculptor in Europe) could not have made a better cast himself, nor anyone before or after him, even to the present day. These bronzes reach the very heights of what is technically possible.”
Unfortunately these beautiful works were later to be carted away from their homes to Europe, scattered among its many museums and attracting thousands of intrigued visitors. Nigeria has since involved itself in a fight to get these artifacts returned to the country.
We take a look at the most popular and magnificent of these artifacts.
The Igbo-Ukwu Bronze
Believed to be dated as far as the 9th Century, the Igbo-Ukwu bronze was first discovered in 1939 in the present southeastern part of the country, by a local villager, Isaiah Anozie, while digging beside his home.
Other art pieces were excavated in 1959 by archaeologist Thurstan Shaw at the request of the Nigerian government. Igbo Ukwu artifacts include, a small staff, a head of a ram, a large manila, an intricately designed crescent-shaped vessel and a small pendant in the shape of a tribal chief’s head with tattoo marks on the face.
These are resident in the British Museum, UK. Radio-carbon dating placed the sites around the 9th and 10th century or earlier, which makes the Igbo Ukwu culture the earliest known example of bronze casting in the region. The craftsmen were working centuries before those who made the more well-known Ife bronzes.
Made up of the ancient and naturalistic bronze, stone, terracotta sculptures as well as glass beads, whose artistry peaked in the 1200s to 1400 AD.
The Bronze Head is one of the 18 copper alloy sculptures unearthed in 1938 at Ife, now Osun State, Nigeria, the religious and former royal center of the Yoruba people.
The head presently located at the British Museum is that of a ruler Ooni, made under the patronage of King Obalufon II. The head is made using the lost wax technique and is approximately three quarters life-size, measuring 35cm high.
The head is designed to appear naturalistic; the face covered with incised striations, but the lips are unmarked. The headdress composed of different layers of tube shaped beads and tassels, typical of bronze heads from Ife.
The lifelike rendering of the sculptures from medieval Ife is exceptional in sub-Saharan African Art. From March to July, 2014, the British Museum held a major exhibition entitled Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures of West Africa which displayed works of art found in and around Ife.
During the 1897 punitive expedition by the British military of the 16th century Benin Empire, prior to the exiling of the Oba to Calabar, they looted the empire confiscating about 3,000 art pieces of its royal art treasury. Some they gave to individual officers but auctioned off most of it in London to recover the cost of the expedition.
Looted Benin treasures can be found in Ethnology Museum, Berlin, Germany; World Museum, Vienna, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Metropolitan Museum, New York.
Nok Terracotta Scuptures
Nok art as a whole refers to a huge reservoir of buried human, animal and other figures made out of terracotta pottery, made by the Nok culture and found throughout Nigeria. The terracottas represent the earliest sculptural art in West Africa and were made between 900 BCE and 0 CE, co-occurring with the earliest evidence of iron smelting in Africa south of the Sahara desert.
The famous terracotta figurines are made of local clays with coarse tempers. Although very few of the sculptures have been found intact, it is clear that they were nearly life-sized. Most are known from broken fragments, representing human heads and other body parts wearing a profusion of beads, anklets, and bracelets. Artistic conventions recognized as Nok art by scholars include geometric indications of eyes and eyebrows with perforations for pupils, and detailed treatment of heads, noses, nostrils, and mouths.
Many have exaggerated features such as enormous ears and genitals, leading some scholars such as Insoll (2011) to argue that they are representations of diseases such as elephantiasis. Animals illustrated in Nok art include snakes and elephants; human-animal combinations (called therianthropic creatures) include human/bird and human/feline mixes. One recurring type is a two-headed Janus theme.
A possible precursor to the art are figurines depicting cattle found throughout the Sahara-Sahel region of North Africa beginning in the 2nd millennium BCE; later connections include the Benin brasses and other Yoruba art.