When talking about art in Nigeria, there are several names that readily come to mind. These include names like Aina Onabolu, Ben Enonowu, Yussuf Grillo, Bruce Onabrekpeya and many others.
These are the fathers of modern art in Nigeria with Chief Aina Onabolu being the father of them all as he is said to be the first art teacher in Nigeria.
Nigerian Art History: Decade by Decade Account
It can be said that Nigeria has an artistic tradition that can be traced back thousands of years. The art has evolved from artefacts with religious or spiritual significance to arts and crafts with practical and decorative use.
Most of the local arts and crafts are unique to specific regions. Also, there are large markets in the major cities that curate art from different parts of the city and sell them.
When art existed for religious purposes, it included the carving of masquerade heads and carving of idols and other sacred objects for shrines. But as it evolved, art became useful and was involved in the carving of bowls, or the weaving of hair and clothing.
Clothing materials such as Akwete from the south-east and Aso-oke are examples of local Nigerian art at work.
We take a look at specific regional arts that were practised by certain cultures in the country.
1. Nok Art
Nok art is definitely the oldest form of art to ever be found 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. The first art pieces from Nok were found in 1928 in Kaduna state, in a village that goes by the name Nok and that’s where the art gets its name from. Other major sites where Nok art was found include Katsina – Ala and Taruga all in Northern Nigeria.
Archaeological evidence suggests that people of Nok existed sometime between 1500BC and 500 AD in North-central Nigeria. They were predominantly farmers but they were also skilled in the working of metals.
Nok art is characterized by life-sized sculpting of humans, with a lot of attention given to the sculpting of elaborate beads and intricate hair patterns. None of the Nok art pieces survived fully, consequently what is left of this art are parts, heads and feets e.t.c.
Most of the popular ones are sculpting of heads. The Nok culture was said to have disappeared sometime around 500 AD with no trace. However, it can be said that their art developed without outside influence.
2. Igbo Ukwu
Igbo Ukwu art can be traced to the 9th century and this art form is believed to be the oldest working of Bronze in the area. The first pieces were discovered by Isaiah Anozie while he was digging his well in the town called Igbo-Ukwu in Anambra state. The workings were so refined and so technically advanced as compared to any other Bronze working in the world at that time that the westerners couldn’t believe its origin was purely from indigenes of the area. In fact, it was said that the work was 500 years ahead of some Bronze masterpiece cavings in the “civilized world”.
Carbon dating revealed that the art was before any known interaction between Ndi-Igbo and the Europeans.
Igbo Ukwu art is basically made of intricately worked bronze artefacts and shows images of insects, pendants, bowls, shells and very few human representations. Some other metal implements such as swords, breastplates, masks were found during excavation. Igbo – Ukwu artists were said to have worked with ivory, terra-cotta.
3. Ife Art
The Yorubas refer to Ife as the cradle of civilization of the Yorubas. And Yoruba mythology claims that Ife was the location of the creation story.
Based on this mythology, Obatala is referred to as the creator and Odudua is the first Ooni, ruler of Ife. Many rulers in Yoruba land trace their ancestry to Odudua.
One of the expected features of a region with such history is the artwork. In 1938, approximately 18 pieces of brass arts were found in Wunmonije compound in Ile-Ife during a building project.
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.
Ife art consists of terracotta sculptures, brass castings also and some stone art, with the majority of them depicting human heads, some also busts. This art flourished between the 13th and 15th Century.
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.
The pieces were made from brass, using a method known as the lost wax method, because no one has been able to reproduce the method. Brass is very difficult to manoeuvre, civilizations such as the Greeks and the Romans tried but failed. However, the Ife art began to decline sometime around the 16th CE as influence moved to the Benin Empire.