Igbo Art (Ǹkà Igbo)


Igbo art (Igbo: Ǹkà Igbo) is any body of visual art originating from the Igbo people. The Igbo produce a wide variety of art including traditional figures, masks, artifacts and textiles, plus works in metals such as bronze. Artworks from the Igbo have been found from as early as 9th century with the bronze artifacts found at Igbo Ukwu.

Masks

Eze Nwanyi:

Eze Nwanyi Otherwise known as the Queen of Women, this mask represents a wealthy, senior wife and grandmother who commands enormous respect in the village.

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She embodies the ultimate feminine ideals of strength, wisdom, beauty, stature and dignity, and is a leader among women.

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This mask is worn in performances that occur at funerals and ceremonies that purify the village and other communal places

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Igbo Ukwu

The ancient site of Igbo Ukwu is situated in the modern day homelands of Igbo peoples of southern Nigeria.

Archaeological finds were first discovered at this site in 1939 when an Igbo farmer named Isaiah Anozie chanced upon several bronze objects as he was digging a cistern to hold water in the dry season.

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Human and ram’s head pendants from Igbo-Ukwu in the British Museum

 

It was not until 1959 that the archaeologist Thurstan Shaw excavated this site and discovered that it must have been part of a storehouse for ritual objects (Shaw 1977). Dated to the 9th or 10th century A.D., Igbo Ukwu represents one of the earliest examples of bronze casting in sub-Saharan Africa.

It is possible that the inhabitants of Igbo Ukwu had a metalworking art that flourished as early as the ninth century.” (though this date remains controversial).

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9th century Igbo-Ukwu bronze ceremonial staff head

Three sites have been excavated, revealing hundreds of ritual vessels and regalia castings of bronze or leaded bronze that are among the most inventive and technically accomplished bronzes ever made.

The people of Igbo-Ukwu, ancestors of present-day Igbo, were the earliest smithers of copper and its alloys in West Africa, working the metal through hammering, bending, twisting, and incising.

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Intricate bronze ceremonial pot, 9th century, Igbo-Ukwu

They are likely among the earliest groups of West Africans to employ the lost-wax casting techniques in the production of bronze sculptures. Oddly, evidence suggests that their metalworking repertory was limited and Igbo smiths were not familiar with techniques such as raising, soldering, riveting, and wire making, though these techniques were used elsewhere on the continent.

Regardless, the talent of these casters was truly astonishing. Many of the castings were made in stages. For instance, in one bronze bowl set on a flat stand found at Igbo-Ukwu, small decorative items including insects and spirals were cast first and placed in the wax model before the main parts of the bowl were made.

The vessel itself was then cast in two parts and fitted together by casting a middle band.

 

In addition to a variety of ritual vessels (whose designs appear to reproduce the form of gourd vessels to which metal handles have been attached), many other bronze items have been found at Igbo-Ukwu, including pendants, crowns and breastplates, staff ornaments, swords, and fly-whisk handles.

These works were also found with tens of thousands of beads, attained through trade for slaves, ivory, or spices.Igbo-Ukwu bronze working was an isolated phenomenon at the time, but bronze casting developed several centuries later in other parts of Nigeria.

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This pair of eggs with a diminutive bird on top of them and with bells attached by wire chains is perhaps the most unusual bronze pendant excavated at Igbo Isaiah. Each egg has three bronze flies ornamenting it. The wire chainwork connecting the small bells to the rest of the object is as ornate (with wire spirals and yellow beads) as other aspects of Igbo Ukwu decoration. The bells are more correctly known as crotals, for they are clapperless and are more like jingle ornaments than true bells. Today both the Eze Nri and Ozo titleholders are buried in elaborate graves with repositories or shrines of their regalia (Shaw 1977: 98-99), so it is easy to imagine that the storehouse of regalia and the burial chamber excavated at Igbo Ukwu are perhaps examples of a tradition that survives to the present.

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Photograph of a 9th century bronze staff head excavated in Igbo-Ukwu, Anambra State Nigeria. Presently located in the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos, Nigeria

This cylindrical bronze ornament, also presumed to be from Igbo Isaiah, is believed to have ornamented a wooden staff, which of course disintegrated long ago. Bosses of intricate granulations, finely detailed birds with curing tails, and beads of various colors encrust the entire surface. Over 60,000 beads were found at Igbo Isaiah (Eyo and Willett 1980: 78) and are a further indication of the wealth of whoever owned this treasure. The copper and lead (used in making bronze) we now know came from a nearby mine (Craddock et al 1997) and the glass beads seem to have been obtained through trade (Insoll and Shaw 1997, Sutton 2001) . For what were they traded?  Elephant ivory and kola nuts are the most likely products. Ivory was deposited in the burial at Igbo Richard and must have been a symbol of wealth and status. Kola is a stimulant grown in the tropical forest regions, but used and traded widely in West Africa.

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sacrifice face bronze pendant

This pendant, presumed to come from Igbo Isaiah, shares the same scarification patterns as the human figure on the equestrian flywhisk handle. Similar scarification marks were still applied to the faces of Igbo people in the Igbo area of Nigeria where Igbo Ukwu is found and are known as ichi. Men wore such patterns as evidence of a “title-taking” ceremony. In the Igbo area title-taking is the most important way for a man to acquire power and status. One of the highest titles a man can acquire is called Ozo. In the immediate area of Igbo Ukwu, the man who has the most political and religious power has the title of the Eze Nri. The person who was buried at Igbo Richard and was the owner of the regalia at Igbo Isaiah was perhaps a high-ranking Ozo man or the Eze Nri of his time.

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fly whisk handle

This bronze equestrian figure was also found in the burial at Igbo Richard. Whoever was buried there must have had considerable wealth and power. The object is probably the handle of a fly whisk, an item often used as a symbol of authority in Africa. The rider dwarfs the horse, and just as was the case at Nok, the rider’s head is disproportionately large. The surfaces of the horse, rider, and handle are all embellished in the typical ornate Igbo Ukwu manner. This is the first instance known of an equestrian figure in West Africa, and from its context in the burial of an important man, it must have been a symbol of his power and authority. The scarification patterns on the rider’s face may be those of the person buried here at Igbo Richard, who may also be the owner of the regalia at Igbo Isaiah.

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snail shaped vessel with mounted leopard

Another shell, also presumably from Igbo Isaiah, the regalia storehouse, is smaller than the site’s other two shells and has what seems to be a leopard standing upon a circular pedestal. The decoration of this shell is different from the other shells and consists of bands of concentric circles, diamond shapes, and herringbone ornamentation. There are three other instances of leopard imagery from Igbo Ukwu, so leopards probably had ritual importance. From this same ritual storehouse some cast bronze leopard teeth and a small pendant in the form of a leopard head were also found. From a nearby site, Igbo Richard, a grave found near the home of Richard Anozie, Isaiah’s brother, a cast bronze leopard skull was found. Many cultures equate powerful animals with powerful political or military leaders. Africans frequently do this using the leopard as their chosen symbol.

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A lost wax cast vessel, Igbo-Ukwu, eastern Nigeria, 9th century

This beautiful vessel is also presumed to be from Igbo Isaiah, the regalia storehouse. The shell was at first thought to depict an African land snail, but experts have identified it as a triton shell from the sea (Shaw 1977: 29). The coast is approximately 100 miles away, and it is intriguing to wonder whether the sea was a source of trade or had a ritual association. The pointed end of the shell is decorated with four frogs being swallowed by four snake heads. The rest of the shell surface has a network of parallel lines, cross hatchings, and granulations typical of Igbo Ukwu. Scattered across this are relief sculptures of crickets and flies. These insects, along with beetles and spiders, are often depicted on the bronzes of Igbo Ukwu. Perhaps they reflected the importance of controlling such insects on the yam crop or illustrated a now-forgotten metaphor.

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The bronze work of Igbo-ukuw which can be found in Enugu state remains as the highest of the ancient works of Nigeria art.

This roped pot, one of the most beautiful and technically complicated objects from Igbo Ukwu, was the first object excavated by Shaw. The pear-shaped pot sits on a pot stand ornamented with pinwheel-shaped openings. Both are encircled by imitation ropework tied into square knots at the junctions. The bronze casters were so confident of their technique that hardly a flaw or seam can be seen, although it was cast in as many as eight different sections. The site where it was found may have been a storehouse of regalia or ritual material. More than fifty  objects—pottery, cloth, beads, bronzes, copper wire, calabashes, and ornamented iron blades—were all carefully laid out on a low platform, originally protected by walls and a roof. For some unknown reason the storehouse was abandoned.

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Bronze pot, 9th century, Igbo-Ukwu

This bowl was also found by Isaiah Anozie when he was making his water cistern and was used as a bowl to water his goats, until it was acquired by the Nigerian Department of Antiquities. Its delicate beaded lines, concentric circles, quatrefoils, and handles and bosses imitating twisted wire are typical of the ornate Igbo Ukwu style. Several similar bowls were found, and all are highly ornamented on the outer surface but smooth inside. Many of the cast bronze items seem to imitate more ordinary objects of clay, fiber ropes, or in this case a calabash or gourd bowl. Such an imitation in another material is called a skeuomorph. Ordinary calabash bowls are commonly decorated with incised and pyro engraved designs, but the ancient Igbo Ukwu artists seem to have covered almost all of their bronze bowls with this extremely intricate work.

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A bronze ceremonial wine bowl, Igbo Ukwu, Nigeria, 9th century

In 1939 the Igbo farmer in Nigeria, Isaiah Anozie, was digging a cistern to hold water in the dry season when he chanced upon several bronze objects, including this bowl on a stand. It was not until 1959 that the archaeologist Thurstan Shaw excavated this site, known as Igbo Ukwu, and discovered that it must have been part of a storehouse for ritual objects (Shaw 1977). Dated to the 9th or 10th century C.E. (A.D.) Igbo Ukwu represents one of the earliest examples of bronze casting in sub-Saharan Africa. The lost-wax casting method was used, which entails making an object out of wax, investing it in clay, firing the clay, and melting out the wax, then filling the mold with molten metal. The bowl and stand were made separately and then joined together by casting the band of spirals and insects. Such sophisticated techniques and almost flawless results demonstrate the skill of the artists.

Uli

Uli is the Igbo name for the indigo dye obtained from several species of plants grown in the Eastern parts of Nigeria. The berries of these plants are ground and the dye is pressed out of the marsh and used for drawing on the human skin (legs and arms, especially) with a Uli knife (mma nw’uli).

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Uli is the name given to the traditional designs drawn by the Igbo people of Nigeria.

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Uli drawings are strongly linear and lack perspective; they do, however, balance positive and negative space. Designs are frequently asymmetrical, and are often painted spontaneously. Uli generally is not sacred, apart from those images painted on the walls of shrines and created in conjunction with some community rituals.

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The drawing of uli was once practiced throughout most of Igboland, although by 1970 it had lost much of its popularity, and was being kept alive by a handful of contemporary artists.

It was usually practiced by women, who would decorate each other’s bodies with dark dyes to prepare for village events, such as marriage, title taking, and funerals; designs would sometimes be produced for the most important market days as well. Designs would last about a week.

 

Uli is also the name for the resultant traditional Igbo mural, although the indigo dye does not form part of the palette in such paintings necessarily. Both the body and canvass wall variants are essentially a tradition most guarded in Igbo culture as the forte of women.

Sources and Themes in the Art of Obiora Udechukwu

Uli artists were highly respected in Igbo society before colonial occupation in the late 1800s. Uli art was passed down from one generation to another – usually along family lines. This ensured continuity. Many scholars and artists have studied Uli art from various perspectives at different times but none has accomplished capturing the essence of Uli in so dramatic a fashion.

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Carved doors

The Igbo use carved wooden panels as entrance to doorways into the compounds of titled members of the prestigious men`s association Ozo. Members of sufficiently high rank are entitled to commission sculptors to carve the panels.

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Carved doors and panels were also apparently adopted or used in the houses of wealthy families as a means of displaying wealth.

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Igbo doors are delicately carved with deeply cut abstract designs in striated and hatched patterns that catch the sunlight to produce high contrasts of light and shadow.

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