This Nigerian piece is something of a quandary. The composition is highly unusual. It takes the form of a male, nude figure, standing with outstretched arms and slightly splayed legs. The body is squat and rounded, with a disproportionately long neck and comparatively short limbs without evidence of anatomical structuring (i.e. lacking defined elbows, knees, wrists and ankles). The head is highly expressionistic in structure, being roughly spherical, with exceptionally large ears, round, protuberant eyes, a gaping mouth with sharp teeth, what is presumably intended to be keloid scarifications on the long nose (and cheeks) and a fan-shaped beard made up of six discrete strands. The body is decorated with a necklacs, bracelets, a waist-band and anklets, all rendered in the same, linear manner. The chest is marked with three roundels in addition to the nipples, which match the navel. The phallus is emphatic and somewhat protruding. The patination is consistently dark and uniform.
Old Nigerian cast copper alloy pieces are vanishingly rare, and the ones that exist were usually collected in such a manner that their context is now uncertain. The stylistic characters of this object place it within the vicinity of the Benue River area, to tribes such as the Egbira, Idoma, Jukun, Abakwariga, Verre and – most likely – the Tiv. The identification rests partly on the lugs that are attached to the lower aspect of the face, from which other examples are known to have hand hung small crotal bells. The facial format is also somewhat reminiscent of the Tiv, although metal and wood formats tend to differ.
The Tiv, who take their name from their eponymous ancestor, are comparatively numerous and live on the left bank of the Benue. Their works are usually rather large, in wood, and used as supports for roofs or as furniture for prestige/visitors huts. Smaller versions are associated with diverse fertility rituals, and are referred to as Ihambe. Metal figures and the famous axes made with the blade springing from the open mouth of a carved head were made by smiths; older forms, the originals, are of unknown origin, and may have been made by itinerant smiths.
This is an impressive and dynamic piece of African art.
- (CK.0032 (LSO))