A complete guide to Nigerian art

Human beings express their experience and values through various forms of art and cultural activities. The history of Nigerian art dates back years before the Nigerian man conceptualised such creations as art. However, the recorded history of Nigerian art can be traced to less than two hundred years of expression.

When you talk about Nigerian art, the likes of Chief Aina Onabolu, Ben Enonowu, Yussuf Grillo Prof Bruce Onabrekpeya amongst others comes to mind. These men are regarded as the fathers of modern art in Nigeria, with Chief Onabolu being the father of them all, and also he’s been considered the first art teacher in Nigeria.

nigerian art

One of the major aspects of Nigerian art and culture lies in the fact that they draw their inspiration from the traditional folk heritage of the region. There are numerous traditional artwork and origins. Only ancestors and humans can tell how it started. The list of traditional art and their origins are endless.

Nigerian culture is demonstrated through art, dance, literature, folklore, and music. The Nok Culture which settled near the Benue River are believed to be one of the earliest reminiscence of the ancient human settlement in Nigeria.

Art itself is an expression of the author/artist/artiste’s imaginative activities. Art can be visual, audio and performed. Art is a medium of expression, art is whatever the creator says it is.

Nigerian art takes you into a world, where stone, wood and glass carvings, pottery, wire works, and paintings are heavily explored. The average Nigerian sees his/her countries art as deep, distinctive, and Afrocentric. Nigerian art majors in sculpture, masks, textiles and many pieces too lost to count.

Most of these art pieces can be found in museums located in colonial countries. Many stolen from the land with the aim to exploit the continent, and others were given in exchange for other items unfamiliar and fascinating to our ancestral fathers.

In an attempt to look at the history of Nigeria arts, we’d be looking at some of the oldest cultures that practised art and some of the most popular and prominent art to have come out of this region called Nigeria.

Nok Art

nigerian art

Nok Art originates from an early culture which existed among the Iron age population called the Nok culture. Nok art is definitely the oldest form of art in Nigeria and West Africa. They are very popular for their terracotta (terracotta means fired clay) sculptures of heads.

The people of Nok lived in an area by the banks of the river Benue, somewhere in present-day Kaduna state,Nigeria and the surrounding area. Though the art pieces are assumed to have been made between 500BC and 200 AD, they were first discovered in 1928.

Sculptures are fired at high temperatures to get the terracotta result as opposed to pottery fired at low temperatures. Producing this art requires technical knowledge, majorly a mastery of clay forms.

Terracotta clay must have no holes or air bubbles because they expand in heat and can crack, which is a danger to the sculptor. Nok art is known for its diversity of subject matter which could be executed with various styles, treatments, and scales.

Characteristics of Nok art include flared nostrils, pierced ears, nose, eyes and mouth, semi-circular or triangular eyes and eyelids, ears are taken back, lowered and small.

Benin Art

nigerian art

Benin Art originates from the Kingdom of Benin, otherwise known as the Edo Empire (1440-1897). Benin Art pieces were crafted mainly for the court of the Oba of Benin. Benin art was made from cast bronze and carved ivory.

Benin art is ceremonially significant as they depict the Oba’s divine nature, centrality and his interactions with the supernatural. It is made from Brass, ivory and coral and it was done and commissioned by the King Esigie in honour of the Queen mother Idia.

The mask is made from Copper, Ivory and Coral and is one of the most recognizable pieces of Benin art. Benin art existed at least by the 13 century or even earlier. Materials used in Benin art are mainly brass, ivory, and coral and are believed to be endowed with sacred powers.

Ife Art

nigerian art

Ife is said to be the cradle of civilization of the Yorubas. According to Yoruba mythology, it was where creation started, with Obatala being the creator and Oduduwa being the first Ooni, ruler of Ife. Other Yoruba kingdoms stem from the Ilé-Ifè, modern-day Osun state, and rulers and clans when traced, are descendants of Oduduwa.

Art is a significant part of this history and culture as it depicts the power of man in ancient time.  According to Wikipedia, Ilé-Ifè is known worldwide for its ancient and naturalistic bronze, stone and terracotta sculptures. These art pieces reached their peak of artistic expression between 1200 and 1400 AD.

The most popular of these is called the Ife bronze head. It is the depiction of a portrait of a man, and it is said to represent a king, King Obalufon II. He was said to be the patron of the bronze casters at that time, and now he had become the patron deity of bronze casters in Ile-Ife.

Majority of the sculptures found in Ife art are of both gods and rulers, some of them life-sized and some under-life sized. In the period around 1300 CE, the artists at Ife developed a refined and naturalistic sculptural tradition in terracotta, stone and copper alloy – copper, brass, and bronze many of which appear to have been created under the patronage of King Obalufon II.

The quality of these artefacts (both technical and artistic) was so high that westerners didn’t believe it was made by the Yoruba race. The realism was great, so it was postulated that they were made by the Greeks, some talked about a white Fulani race or even Mongoloid race who had made the pieces. However time solved the problem, and it has been agreed, the art was very indigenous with no influence from the outside world.