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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Nok Terracotta Male Head
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Nok Terracotta Male Head - PF.5766 (SP.160)
Origin: Nigeria
Circa: 300 BC to 200 AD
Dimensions: 8.25" (21.0cm) high
Collection: African Art
Medium: Terracotta

Location: United States
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This serene and dignified sculpture was made by the Nok people of Nigeria. It contains elements that are both familiar and innovative. The former include the slanted, drilled eyes under arched, matte brows, a small mouth, a flattened nose and a comparatively elongated face. The chin bears a small beard. The head is adorned with a helmet-like piece of headwear which sits on curled up hair, projecting at the back and the sides.

The Nok culture is defined largely on the basis of its superb terracotta artworks, and flourished between 900 BC and 200 AD. Technically, it is more a tradition than a culture, an artistic style that was shared by otherwise different Iron-Age communities. Their outstanding ceramic sculptures constitute the most sophisticated and formalised early African artistic tradition outside Egypt; they are so refined that 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.

The larger sculptures are believed to have been placed in structures that had ceremonial or ritual importance, thus occupying a prominent social position within the community. Smaller ones may have been talismans or similar. Men, women and fantastical personages are all portrayed. One might reasonably guess at function re gender (virility, fertility, success in hunting etc), although many may refer to historical personages or myths that are beyond our grasp.

Whatever its purpose, this is 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.5766 (SP.160))


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