The so-called Sao culture (the name was apparently a derogatory
expression used by Islamic invaders to denote the native "pagans")
appeared in the vicinity of Lake Chad between 500bc and ad 1600. The
Sao buried their dead in huge jars, set vertically in the earth and
sealed with an inverted bowl, the base of which protruded above
ground level. Various bronze ornaments and much pottery ware,
including figures of ancestors and human figures with animal faces,
have been discovered in connection with these graves. The human
images have been identified as masked people, but were possibly
representations of mythical heroes. Sao culture seems to have
reached its peak between the 10th and the 16th centuries, a period
to which more than 15,000 pottery finds, some still to be fully
interpreted, can be dated.
THE "LOST-WAX" CASTING TECHNIQUE
To begin the so-called lost-wax technique, a wax model is made of
the object to be cast, and this is then covered with clay. When it
is put in the fire, the clay casing bakes and the melted wax runs
out through small channels. Molten metal is then poured into the
clay mould through the same channels, filling the space left by the
wax. Once the metal has cooled, the clay casing is broken open and
the sculpture removed. As the beautifully sculpted bronze head shown
below illustrates, this refined technique produces finely-detailed
works of great craftsmanship — usually associated with much later
metalwork. The technical procedures and items of equipment used to
craft metal and clay were probably the independent invention of an
already existing alloying and casting technology. Until the early
16th century, Benin sculptors used predominantly "gun-metal" - an
alloy of copper, tin, and zinc -suggesting both local and
trans-Saharan sources of raw material. From the 16th century
onwards, brass was used, obtained via trade with Europeans, who at
the time were travelling down the West African coast.
Bronze head, kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, 23 cm (9 in) high, early 16th
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Cultures of the Lower Niger Basin
The most ancient and important tradition of African plastic art
outside the Nile Valley originated in the regions that correspond to
present-day Nigeria. More information exists on the artistic past of
Nigeria than any other part of the African continent. What emerges
is an artistic development spanning 2,500 years and dating from at
least the middle of the first millennium bc. Although there are
enormous gaps in our knowledge of this period, it is still possible
to date some of the fundamental phases that help to determine the
history of Nigerian art. The earliest of these phases is the Nok
culture, dating from 500bc to AD200; there is later the style of the
Ife kingdom, reaching its peak between ad1200 and 1400; and the
style of the Benin kingdom from 1400 to 1900. There is
documentation, too, of independent artistic development in the
styles of the Igbo-Ukwu (ninth to tenth century) and the Owo (15th
century). Examination of common stylistic elements suggests that
some of the artistic forms that developed in Nigeria were descended
from the Nok culture or, at least, from an artistic tradition of
which the Nok is the only known manifestation. No archaeological
finds have yet been attributable to the millennium separating the
Nok and the Ife cultures. Ife art shows a gradual evolution from the
rigid naturalistic style of the classical period to increasingly
stylized forms that originated two major currents: the art of Benin,
extending until the present, and the various modern styles of Yoruba
Copper and zinc head of an Oni (king), kingdom of Ife, Nigeria, 31 cm
(12 in) high, 12th-15th century. Museum of Ife Antiquities. Ife
The Nok culture takes its name from a mining village situated on the
high central plain of Nigeria, where the most ancient Nigerian
sculptures known to date were excavated in about 1950. These small
pottery sculptures, or fragments of other almost life-size
sculptures, consist of both human and animal figures. In the
stylized human figures, the head is represented geometrically as a
cylinder, cone, or sphere, often decorated with an elaborate
hairstyle. The nostrils, pupils, mouth, and ears are for the most
part indicated by a groove, while the lines that describe the facial
features - particularly those depicting the eyes -are cleanly and
precisely-carved; the stylized mouth and beard often project from
the rest of the face. To produce such large, nearly life-size
figures in potter)' must have required particular skill, and in
common with all sub-Saharan African pottery, open fires instead of
kilns were used for firing the items. The Nok culture flourished
from 500bc to ad200, and it is within this period that we find the
earliest evidence for a tradition of pottery sculpture in West
Africa. The stylistic differences found within the Nok region mean
that we cannot be sure that we are dealing with a single
artistic-population, and the evidence is not sufficient to conclude
that the Nok culture is directly ancestral to other, later Nigerian
Terracotta head, Nok culture, Nigeria, 36 cm (14 in)
National Museum, Lagos.
Bronze ceremonial vase, Igbo-Ukwu, Nigeria, 32.3 cm (12.5 in) high,
ninth to tenth century. National Museum, Lagos.
Ife art, which flourished between the 12th and 16th centuries, was
discovered in 1910 by the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, at a
time when Nok art was still unknown. It baffled Western critics, who
resorted to citing Egyptian or Greek influences to explain this
gracefully naturalistic art form that was quite unlike any of the
examples so far discovered on the African continent. Subsequent
finds at Ife revealed some decidedly African features, such as the
accentuation of the size of the head in relation to the rest of the
body, and demonstrated how far removed Ife naturalism was from the
classic European tradition. For centuries, Ife was an important
city-state of the Yoruba. Its importance was due in part to the
creation myth of the Yoruba, which tells how the supreme god
Olodumare is supposed to have sent 16 minor divinities to create the
world and found the various Yoruba kingdoms. One of these lesser
deities was Oduduwa, founder and first king (Oni) of Ife. Although
it is impossible to date the beginning of Ife artistic development,
it was clearly established prior to ad1200 and was producing bronze
objects for the kingdom of Benin by the end of the 15th century. It
can, therefore, safely be assumed that Ife art reached its apogee
between these two dates. The Ife style is visible in one of the nine
copper-alloy sculptures found in the village of Tada and on the
small island of Jebba along the Niger river; the local Islamic
population worshipped these statues in the conviction that they had
been brought there by Tsoede, the mythical hero who founded the Nupe
royal dynasty. In 1969, the sculptures were transferred to the
National Museum, Lagos. The true origin of the "Tsoede bronzes"
remains a mystery. They appear to be derived from at least two
different stylistic centres - Ife and Owo, for example. It is
feasible, however, that they may come from another important centre
of production that has not yet been identified. Examination of the
alloy (which is mainly copper with the addition of tin) leads to the
conclusion that these are works that were made before any contact
with any European culture.
Brass statue of an oni (king), kingdom of Ife, Nigeria, 47 cm (18 in)
high, 12th- 15th century. National Commission for Museums and Monuments,
Pottery head of a woman, kingdom of Ife, Nigeria, 12.5 cm (5
in) high, 12th-15th century. National Museum, Lagos.
Copper mask of the Oni Obalufon, kingdom
of ife, Nigeria, 33 cm (13 in) high,
12th- 15th century, Nationai Commission
for Museums and Monuments, Lagos.
Bronze ornamental plaque, kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, 45 cm (17 in)
high, c. mid-17th century.
Berggruen Collection, Geneva.
Bronze ceremonial vase, Igbo-Ukwu, Nigeria, 32.3 cm (12.5 in) high,
ninth to tenth century. National Museum, Lagos.
THE BRONZES OF IGBO-UKWU
Igbo-Ukwu is a small village in southeastern Nigeria, in the region
now inhabited by the Igbo people. Excavations here have brought to
light a number of bronze objects, the first of which were unearthed
accidentally during the course of digging work to install an
underground tank. The bronzes found fall broadly into three
categories: a repository of ceremonial objects: articles found in a
burial chamber of a high-ranking member of society; and items
discovered in a well, including a splendidly decorated vase with
ceremonial insignia. All of the objects found, made of an alloy of
copper, tin, and lead, showed complete mastery of the lost-wax
casting technique. A characteristic element of the Igbo-Ukwu style
(ninth to tenth century) is the detailed and delicate surface
decoration of objects, featuring tiny figures of insects and small
animals, and the addition of fine wires arranged to emphasize the
shape of the piece. The vase illustrated is enveloped in a stylized
woven net, possibly inspired by the type of net that vxould have
been used for carrying containers. This is a style unique to the
African continent, and nothing is known of its provenance or
subsequent development. Although there is no similar style in the
same area today, scholars maintain that the descendants of the
ancient culture of Igbo-Ukwu are the Igbo people who still live in
Copper seated figure in the Ife style, Tada. Nigeria, 53.7 cm (20 in)
high, c. 12th-14th century. National Commission for Museums and
One of the most mysterious works of African art, this seated figure
matches the Ife style but was found together with the so-called
Tsoede bronzes in the village of Tada, on the banks of the Niger. It
is distinguished from all other Ife sculptures by its complex
asymmetrical position, virtually unique in African sculpture, which
generally favours a frontal or symmetrical position. The sculpture
is also unusual for the proportions of the head and other body
parts, which resemble that of a real human body. In other figures
from Ife, the head measures about one-quarter of the total height
and the legs are markedly smaller.
Bronze statue of a warrior on horseback, kingdom of Benin, Nigeria,
47cm (18 in) high, mid-16th century. Institute of Arts, Detroit.
The Kingdom of Benin
Oral tradition relates that when each king (Oba) of Benin died, his
head was dispatched to Ife for burial, and a brass head was sent
from Ife to be placed on the altar of his ancestors. Towards the end
of the 14th century, however, the Oba of Benin requested the Oni of
Ife to send a foundry worker to teach his people how to produce
their own commemorative heads of the sovereign. In reality, the
oldest bronze heads of Benin are somewhat different from those of
Ife. This is probably explained by the fact that when the technique
of casting was introduced, the Benin style was already mature. Benin
art continued to evolve until 1897, when British soldiers ransacked
and destroyed the Nigerian city. A treasury of brass and ivory
objects was recovered from the palace before it caught fire, and
this found its way to England, where the treasures were later
dispersed among various museums in the West. Benin art is
conventionally subdivided into three stylistic phases. The early
period is prior to the changes in Benin art that resulted from
European trading in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and the
middle period spans the 16th and 17th centuries. Together, these two
periods include the works that Europeans regard as being of greatest
aesthetic value. In the late period, which dates from the 18th
century to the British conquest, there was an increase in the size
of the objects produced, and in the standardization of style.
Rounded bronze vase with decorative handles, kingdom of Benin,
22.5 cm (9 in) high, mid-17th century. National Museum, Lagos.
The striking decorative figures have been finely created in bas-relief.
The art of Benin was the art of the royal court. Artists in Benin
City were organized into guilds, such as those for brass smiths or
wood sculptors. The members lived and worked within particular areas
of the city. Their artistic output was tightly controlled by the
king (Oba), and the objects they produced, whether brass castings
for royal shrines or other artifacts for the palace, were solely for
the use of the Oba, who was seen as a divine figure. The courtyard
verandahs of the royal palace of Benin were built of mud-brick and
wood, and were supported by massive wooden pillars. In the 16th and
17th centuries, these were decorated with rectangular cast brass
plaques commemorating battles and documenting court ceremonies. This
kind of documentation is more common in Africa than is usually
recognized. On some of these plaques, there is an attempt to imitate
Western-type perspective, possibly copied from conventional
rectangular book illustrations.
Bronze statue of a warrior, possibly Owo style, Nigeria, 115 cm (44
in) high, 14th-15th century. National Commission for Museums and
THE OWO STYLE
Owo (Nigeria) was another of the many city-states of the Yoruba
people. Geographically situated between Benin and Ife, Owo seems to
have played a transitional cultural role between these two
civilizations. Objects found in Owo, which probably date from the
15th century", display clear affinities with the late art of Ife and
that of Benin. Stylistic comparisons suggest that the technique of
bronze casting must have travelled from Ife to Benin by way of Owo.
The woman's head shown below illustrates how the Owo artists could
use terracotta to produce work as fine as the metal objects more
usually associated with them.
Terracotta head of a woman, Owo culture, Nigeria, 17.4 cm (7 in)
high, 15th century.
National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Lagos.
THE IVORIES OF BENIN AND THE KONGO
Leopard, kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, ivory with copper inlay,
47 cm (18 in) high, late 19th century. Property of Her Majesty
the Queen, British Museum, London. The figure of the leopard is
recognized as one of the symbolic representations of the Oba, or
Ivory was used in Benin for much of the king's ceremonial
apparel, including bracelets and even the handles of fly
swatters. Heavily decorated elephant tusks, up to 1.5 metres
(5 feet) long, were fixed to the bronze heads that were kept
on the altar of the royal ancestors. Salt cellars, spoons,
trumpets, and other objects were commissioned by the
Portuguese in coastal Sierra Leone, Benin City, and the
kingdom of Kongo. Indeed, the earliest African art objects
documented by a European collector were the Kongo trumpets,
or hunting horns, dating from 1560. in the inventor}' of the
household of Cosimo the Great, first grand duke of Tuscany.
Closely resembling the horn shown below, these may have been
a gift to the Medici popes, or may have been brought into
the family by the Grand duchess Eleanor of Toledo.
Ivory hunting horn, kingdom of Kongo, Kongo-Portuguese style. Angola,
63 cm (24 in) high, 14th-17th century.
Museo Preistorico ed Etnografico Lulgi Pigorini, Home.
Terracotta seated figure, culture of the inner Niger Delta,
Segou style, Mall, 44.3 cm (17 in) high, 12th-16th century.
Musee Barbler-Mueller, Geneva.
Cultures of the Inner Niger Delta
The region of Mali, situated at the confluence of the Niger
and Bani rivers, is known as the inner Niger Delta. It is
dominated by a vast alluvial plain crossed by a network of
waterways, above which rise strips of land that are spared
during times of flooding. This land has been populated for
many centuries and signs of human settlement and ironworking
date from as early as the second century bc. Today, traces
are emerging of some of the many riverine cultures that
constituted the ancient empires of Ghana and Mali. Since
1978, many hundreds of sites have been uncovered, and a
wealth of pottery sculptures dating from between the 12th
and 16th century have been excavated from them. Ranging in
height from 30 to 60 centimetres (11 to 23 inches), these
items include human or animal figurines moulded in clay and
decorated with rough engravings. Variations in type are
attributed to diverse styles in the centres of production,
for example Bankoni/Segou and Djenne. The Djenne style is
characterized by markedly elongated heads, with huge eyes,
heavy eyebrows, and a mouth form that juts out powerfully
from the rest of the face. Hair, drapes, ornaments, and
scars are roughly incised or stamped, producing the effect
of a successful blend of modelling and carving.
Terracotta figure of a warrior,
Djenne style, culture of the inner Niger Delta, Mali, 38.1 cm
(14 in) high, I3th-14th century.
Institute of Arts, Detroit.
STONE FIGURES FROM THE VILLAGE OF
This figure forms part of a group of about 800 soft stone
sculptures found in woodland near the village of Esie.
Nigeria. They include male and female figures, mostly
seated, with tall, elaborate hairstyles and necklaces. The
ancestors of Esie's present-day inhabitants are said to have
found the sculptures already in situ when they arrived in
the area at the end of the 19th century. The origin of the
figures is explained by a legend about a group of foreign
visitors turned into stone.
Stone figure from the village of Esie. Nigeria, 70 cm (27 in)
high, pre-1850. National Museum, Esie.
Among the first African objects to reach Europe were fine ivory
carvings imported by Dutch and Portuguese merchants during the
Renaissance. They are commonly referred to as Afro-Portuguese
ivories because they are thought to have been commissioned by the
Portuguese from native African artists. In fact, they are
recognizably African, but embellished by certain motifs derived from
European iconography: hunting scenes, Portuguese heraldic subjects,
and Latin inscriptions. It seems that African craftsmen created
objects for their earliest Portuguese customers that had originally
been made for their own use, modifying the forms and ornamentation
to suit the tastes of their clients. Three styles of Afro-Portuguese
ivories have been identified, attributable to three distinct areas
of production. The oldest ivories are in the Sapi-Portuguese style,
from Sierra Leone between the late 15th century and early 16th
century-. They were made by artists erf the Sapi (Portuguese Capes)
population, at the behest of the first Portuguese merchants.
Characteristic of the style is the representation of the human head,
which resembles that of certain ancient stone sculptures found in
Sierra Leone - a vestige of a forgotten local culture. Another
typical feature is the gracefulness of the relief decoration, which
leaves much of the surface free. It appears that from the mid-l6th
century. Afro-Portuguese ivories no longer came from Sierra Leone
but from the kingdom of Benin (in present-day Nigeria) and were made
there by local artists. This is the so-called Benin-Portuguese
style. The ivories in the Kongo-Portuguese style were made by
artists of the ancient kingdom of Kongo (in the north of modern
Angola). The style is recognizable in only a very few objects,
almost exclusively hunting horns.
Ivory salt-cellar, kingdom of Benin. Bini-Portuguese
style, Nigeria, 19.2 cm (7.5 in) high, first half of the
sixth century. Ethnic Museum, Ambres. The skill of the local
craftworkers was recognized by the Portuguese.
Ivory salt-cellar, Sapi-Portuguese style, Sierra Leone,
43 cm (16 in) high, late 15th-early 16th century.
Museo Preistohco ed Etnografico Luigi Pigorini, Rome.
Ivory trumpet or hunting horn, Sapi-Portuguese style, Sierra Leone,
63.5 cm (24 in) high, late 15th-early 16th century.
Paul and Ruth Tishman Collection of African Art, Los Angeles.