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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Nok Terracotta Sculpture of a Horned Head
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Nok Terracotta Sculpture of a Horned Head - PF.5474 (LSO)
Origin: Northern Nigeria
Circa: 500 BC to 500 AD
Dimensions: 8" (20.3cm) high x 7.25" (18.4cm) wide
Catalogue: V26
Collection: African
Medium: Terracotta

Location: United States
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Comparatively little is known of the Nok culture, which is defined largely on the basis of its superb terracotta artworks. Flourishing between 900 BC and 200 AD, the Nok style is a tradition, a style of manufacture that was adopted by different Iron-Age agriculturally- based communities that in fact had widely varying cultures in all other respects. What does unite the trends, however, is a series of outstanding ceramic sculptures, which constitute the most sophisticated and formalised early African artistic tradition outside Egypt. It should be noted that the sophistication of these terracottas makes some scholars believe that they sprang from a hitherto undiscovered ceramic tradition. Technically, they are very unusual because of the manner in which coiled and subtractive sculpting methods were used to capture likenesses. Aesthetically, they are both naturalistic and expressionist, with highly distinctive elongated forms, triangular eyes, pierced pupils/nostrils and elaborate hairstyles.

Substyles of the Nok tradition include the Classical Jemaa Style, the Katsina Ala Style (elongated heads) and the Sokoto Style (elongated monobrow foreheads, lending a severe expression to the face) and random variants such as the Herm Statues of Kuchamfa (simplified cylindrical figures topped with normal heads) and the “standard” three-dimensional standing figures, which subscribe to the Jemaa style. It is to the Jemaa group that the current piece can be attributed. The function of the art is unclear, although the care of execution has led some to claim they represent nobility, or perhaps ancestors to which obeisance and sacrifices were offered. However, it is only through unusual pieces like this that the full range of Nok sculptural habits can be ascertained.

This piece contains elements that are both familiar and innovative. The former include the slanted, drilled eyes under arched, matte brows (which are often seen in later groups such as the Yoruba), a wide-lipped mouth smiling to expose the teeth, and a comparatively elongated face. The nose is broad and flat – unlike the majority of pieces that have a more aquiline or elongated nose – the ears are large and pinnate, and the headwear is also very unusual. This constitutes a horned “crown”, formed from a cap-like arrangement decorated with circular stamps and surmounted by a pair of thick, stubby horns that protrude from the sides of the head in parallel with its lateral axis. The face is further decorated with a pair of flanges that protrude one from each cheek, lateral to the nose and interior to the eyes.

As stated, the role of these pieces is uncertain. The larger ones are believed to have been placed in structures that had ceremonial or ritual importance at the time, thus occupying a prominent social position within the community. Smaller ones may have been talismans or similar. However, when it comes to the identity of the people portrayed in the art, rather more guesswork is required. Men, women and fantastical personages are all portrayed, and while one might reasonable guess at gender implications (virility, fertility, success in agriculture etc), unusual characters such as this demand a more carefully contextualised explanation.

It could of course be an ancestor figure or even a portrait, but the striking appearance of the piece makes such a mundane explanation unappealing. It is probably a representation of a mythological figure, a shaman, an abstract concept or a spirit/deity to which respects and perhaps libations/offerings were paid. The size of the piece suggests a social prominence within the community rather than a personal item, and the care with which it was made argues for specialist craftsmen and artists rather than secular personal endeavour. This is, therefore, an important and striking piece of ancient ritual African art which deserves a prominent place in any serious collection of works in this field. - (PF.5474 (LSO))


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