African Heritage on View in Art; an Ancient Nigerian Figurine Collection Links Blacks to Past
Hawkins, Carole, The Florida Times Union
Byline: CAROLE HAWKINS
WAYCROSS - Tin miners in Africa in 1928 unearthed a small terra cotta figure of a monkey's head. It was made by a vanished people, the Nok, who lived in central Nigeria between 500 B.C. and 200 A.D. The figure would be the first of hundreds discovered.
Now 19 of these stylized human and animal Nok sculptures are in a Waycross museum. And the artifacts may represent one of the few tangible links African-American residents of Waycross have to distant ancestors in Africa, art experts say.
The Okefenokee Heritage Center will display its Nok collection Saturday and Sunday. It will be the first time the general public can see the artifacts since they were donated by primitive art collector Howard Gelb more than a year ago. The museum is still working to fund a permanent protective display for the pieces.
Heritage Center exhibits coordinator Steve Bean said from the first moment he learned of the Nok donation, he felt the significance of it.
"This is also an unusually large collection. Most museums with Nok relics have only one or two pieces," Bean said.
The Nok sculptures occupy a rare place in archeology because they are so old, said professor Christopher Roy, who teaches African art and culture at the University of Iowa.
Most African cultures made objects out of wood, which deteriorates quickly, Roy said. Because of this, much of the native African art that has been collected comes from the 19th and 20th centuries.
"Nok sculptures are some of the best examples of art in that area that is ancient," and are some of the oldest relics from Africa, Roy said.
The Nok were an iron-age culture who, in addition to the figurines, left behind knives, spear points and furnaces. Nok artifacts have been found in several distant villages, suggesting they were a people who traded.
Nok terra cotta pottery was fired using an archaic method, still practiced in Africa through the 20th century. The figures range from a few inches in height to more than a yard. The human statues show oversized heads, stylized facial features, and specific hairstyles, clothing and jewelry. …