In any discussion about Nigeria’s art, it is very essential to draw attention to the Nigerian culture simply because art and culture are intertwined into a single system that describes the way of life of a particular people.
As a whole, culture encompasses artistic activities which may include folklore, music, literature, and dance. In many African countries –inclusive of Nigeria –art is best understood from a cultural perspective.
History of Art In Nigeria
Artistic heritage is one of the interesting features that distinguish Nigeria as one of the culturally-inclined countries in Africa. The conception of art in Nigeria has a significant history dating from the emergence of the ancient Nok Culture peculiar to the River Benue region of northern Nigeria.
Nok Culture as One of the Earliest Arts in Nigeria
Nigeria’s art is believed to have been influenced by the Nok Culture and historical facts show that the Nok Culture was one of the prehistoric arts suggestive of the ancient human settlement in Nigeria. The Nok Culture has greatly influenced Nigeria’s art as well as cultural activities. It gave birth to the development of terracotta statues and figurines. Regarded as the most significant feature of the Nok Culture, terracotta statues and figurines are sculptures which feature the sumptuous use of iron.
There are other ancient arts in Nigeria, but the Nok Culture seems to have influenced the history of art in Nigeria more than many other arts. The first discovery of well-known terracotta sculptures came about in the northern State of Kaduna in 1928. It is said that the name given to the material remains of the Nok Culture is attributed to Nok’s Ham village in Kaduna. The origin of Nok Culture in northern Nigeria dates as far back as 1000BC. Considered an influential art, the Nok Culture remained in existence for more than 1,400 years until it eventually disappeared around 500 AD. The reasons for its disappearance haven’t been known yet.
In the Nok Culture, iron was used in smelting and fashioning tools around 550BC and perhaps before this period. Based on the facts contained in historical linguistics, there had been a separate discovery of iron smelting in Nok before 1000BC. The Nok Culture undoubtedly belonged to the Iron Age and this has encouraged more archaeological surveys to be conducted on it. In 2005, some scientists initiated their field work to thoroughly investigate the archaeological sites in Nok and capture insights into the terracotta sculptures built in Nok during the Iron Age.
Some theoretical inferences have been made concerning the purpose of Nok terracotta statues and figurines but the actual purpose served by these ancient sculptures is yet to be known. According to theories, Nok terracotta sculptures serve various purposes in grave marking, ancestor portrayal and as fetish against illness, infertility, and disaster.
The actual dating for Nok terracotta sculptures is still laced with doubts particularly as a consequence of the natural erosion which dispersed the artifacts at diverse ranges all over the Sahel grasslands. Nevertheless, historical facts reveal that two archaeological sites have given insights into the dating of Nok terracotta sculptures. At the two archaeological sites namely Taruga and Samun Dakiya, scientists discovered some static Nok sculptures. Tests conducted using thermo-luminescence and radiocarbon equipment traced the age of the sculptures as far back as 2000 – 2,500 years. Archaeological excavations conducted afterward revealed older dates for the sculptures with the suggestion that Nok art might have started at a far earlier time. Regarding the specified archaeological observations, Nok sculptures have been classified amongst the oldest artifacts in West Africa.
The Discovery of Nok Sculptures
Colonel Dent Young –regarded as one of the owners of a mining firm – was the first person to obtain the sight of Nok sculptures. He discovered the artifacts in 1928 close to Nok village on the Jos Plateau of northern Nigeria. Meanwhile, the first Nok terracottas so discovered were suddenly excavated at a 24-feet level from an alluvial tin mine. Following the remarkable discovery, Dent Young took the artifacts to a museum in Jos.
Archaeological excavations have revealed that Nok Culture was one of Nigeria’s foremost arts and its age far exceeds those of many other known arts in the country. Even in the entirety of West Africa, it has been regarded as one of the oldest arts. The Nok Culture is said to have disappeared but this doesn’t becloud the fact that it remains one of Nigeria’s most historical arts. Its historical significance rested on the fact that it preceded many other prominent Nigerian arts such as the terracottas of ancient Ile-Ife and the Igbo-Ukwu bronze.
Other Ancient Arts in Nigeria
Significant arts such as Igbo-Ukwu bronze and Ile-Ife terracotta works emerged in the tenth century and soon became the most popular arts in Nigeria. In fact, their prominence swirled across West Africa, classifying them among the most popular arts in the specified African region.
Ile-Ife is greatly admired for its art of ivory bronze embellished with valuable stones while Igbo-Ukwu –a town in Anambra –commands great prestige for its design of pendants and other ornaments with the use of bronzes.
Still On Brief History Of Art In Nigeria
Popular Arts in Nigeria
There are lots of beautiful arts in Nigeria but the most popular of these are cloth weaving, woodcarving, Igbo-Ukwu bronze work, Ile-Ife terracottas, stone carving, pottery and glass work.
Igbo-Ukwu bronze work is named after its place of discovery, Igbo-Ukwu –a famous and ancient town in Anambra. It is regarded as the most significant and most admired art ever discovered in the eastern part of Nigeria. Historical facts imply that Igbo-Ukwu bronze began as far back as the 10th century, serving as the first bronze art discovered in the region.
Woodcarving is a blossoming craft in Nigeria and it has yielded beautiful products such as tables, chairs and other ornamental items used at homes. Woodcarving thrives best in southern Nigeria where woodcarvers can be seen designing attractive figurines which portray the spirits of ancestors and powerful natural features such as thunder, water, sky, fire, sea and the earth.