African & Tribal Art :
Nok, Katsina, Sokoto : Nok Terracotta Head
Nok Terracotta Head - PF.1449
Origin: Northern Nigeria
6.5" (16.5cm) high
x 4" (10.2cm) wide
Location: United States
It is difficult to say whether this majestic head
represents an aristocratic mortal or a god.
Rendered with powerful abstraction, it radiates a
dignity and authority that suggests high rank.
Spiritually, it seems kin to the cult statues of the
ancient Near East, and its votive function was no
doubt similar. The prominent eyes rivet our
attention, as if they held clues to vital secrets.
This is a
splendid and rare example of early African
terracotta sculpture, one whose appeal crosses
the boundaries of time and culture.
The terracotta statuary of the Nok Culture is a
classic art style whose sudden appearance has
radically challenged the traditional art history of
African sculpture. Four main characteristics
distinguish the Nok style. (1) The treatment of
the eyes, which form either a
segment of a circle or sometimes a triangular
form, with the eyebrow above balancing the
sweep of the lower lip, sometimes making a
(2) The piercing of the pupils, the nostrils, the
lips and the ears.
(3) The careful representation of elaborate
hairstyles, with complex constructions, buns,
tresses, locks and the profusion of beads around
the neck, torso and waist.
(4) The realism in the modeling of the curled lips,
the straight nose with flaring nostrils and the
large overhanging forehead.
The earliest known sculpture of large size in the
Sudan is that produced in pottery by the Nok
culture, which flourished extensively in northern
Nigeria from the 5th century BC into the early
centuries AD. These people were the first known
manufacturers of iron in Western Africa; furnaces
at Taruga having been dated between the 5th
and early 3rd centuries BC. Of well-fired clay,
their sculptures represent animals
naturalistically; human figures, however, are
depicted with heads that are usually tubular, but
sometimes conical or spherical, and with simple
tubular trunks and limbs. The art of Nok
indicates the antiquity of many basic canons of
West African sculpture, but the precise
relationship between ancient and modern forms