From the north the remarkable Nok terra-cotta heads, most of them fragments of figures, are the earliest African sculpture yet found (c.500 B.C.–A.D. 200). Characteristic of these works are the impressive simplification of facial features and the pierced pupils of the eyes. The art of S Nigeria reveals considerable contrasts. Yoruba work is often brilliantly polychromed. The world-famous Ife portrait heads in bronze and terra-cotta (12th–15th cent.) are unique in Africa because of their naturalistic detail, perfection of modeling, and control over the cire perdue process. Nothing certain is known of the artistic sources or the function of the heads.
The art of Benin arose from the needs of the royal court. It was largely commemorative, ritualistic, and ceremonial in function. From Benin city came thousands of objects dating from the 15th to the 19th cent. The earliest bronze portrait heads date from the first half of the 16th cent. Such models of human heads were considered representations of past kings, or Obas, who were held to be divine. They were also fitted with carved elephant tusks atop the head. In the Benin palace were bronze plaques of figures against floral backgrounds. Abundant descriptive detail and sharp, precise lines are characteristic of Benin art.
The Igbo, Ibibio, Ekoi, and Ijaw of SE Nigeria carved wooden masks for use in their rites and secret societies. Ekoi masks were modeled after human skulls, with deep eye sockets, carved exposed teeth, and emaciated faces. On the banks of Middle Cross River are about 300 monolithic carvings, supposedly Ekoi ancestor figures from between 1600 and 1900.
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