Sculpture of Northern Nigeria

Sculpture of Northern Nigeria

Sculpture of Northern Nigeria

Sculpture of Northern Nigeria


This paper deals with the sculpture of five tribes of the Northern Region of Nigeria: the eastern Igala, Idoma, Goemai, Montol and Jaba. These tribes were visited briefly in 1958. The author is grateful to the Ford Foundation for the support which made this field study possible and to the Nigerian Antiquities Commission and the Department of Antiquities for their aid, advice and cooperation in the program of research and in the assembling of a study collection. Because the field contacts were brief -- ranging from a few days to a few weeks -- and were conducted primarily as a survey concerned with acquiring data on stylistics, this report cannot hope to be more than provisional.

Roy Sieber

The tribes of Nigeria have produced a wealth of traditional sculptural forms. Many of the tribal styles are well known and well represented in museums and private collections outside Nigeria. Others are almost totally unknown or unreported. Among the latter are the sculptures of a number of small socalled pagan, or non-Moslem, tribes of the Northern Region.

Little is known of the history of this area, of the migrations and counter-migrations, the cross-currents of conquest that ended only with the holy wars of the Mohammedan Fulani in the last century. The inhabitants of the Region are now predominantly Moslem. In their conversion many of the peoples have lost their tribal identity and, as required by Islamic law, have abandoned the figurative arts they might once have practiced. However, it seems certain that the Moslem jihads stopped short of the Benue River, for there exist along its banks a number of small tribes that escaped the full impact of Mohammedan religious and political control. Further, it was not until quite recently, in some cases less than a half-century ago, that Europeans first contacted some of these tribes.

Thus through the accident of geography this middle belt escaped the pressures of both Islam and the western world and retains, even now, much of its traditional religion and art. The arts played an important and positive role in these cultures. Conservative and traditional, they sprang from the beliefs and value patterns of the tribe and served to reinforce those values. The artist too was conservative and committed to traditional modes. Yet, from the evidence of the objects, this was not an overwhelmingly restrictive deterrent. Indeed, he functioned within the group, served its ends and earned its rewards as a contributing member of his society.

The sculpture of this area seems little related to the styles of the, southern regions of Nigeria. Certain parallels do appear with the Cameroons highlands and the northern Congo. Perhaps more startling is the Sudanic character of some of the forms. It is unfortunate that no traces of traditional figurative arts have been discovered in the intensely Moslemized areas to the north and west. However, further research may uncover enough clues to reconstruct with some confidence the stylistic relationships that once existed.

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