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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Nok (Katsina) Terracotta Sculpture of a Man with Ape-like Features
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Nok (Katsina) Terracotta Sculpture of a Man with Ape-like Features - LSO.572
Origin: Nigeria
Circa: 200 BC to 200 AD
Dimensions: 19.75" (50.2cm) high
Collection: African Art
Medium: Terracotta

Additional Information: as

Location: Great Britain
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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 in fact an agglomeration of similar traditions that flourished in western and central Nigeria. While there are different stylistic categories, these have little social significance as finds of in-situ Nok material culture are almost unheard-of. Stray archaeological discoveries have confirmed that the Nok culture is in fact a myth – the Nok 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. The function of the art is unclear, although the care with which they are executed has led some to claim they represent nobility, perhaps ancestors to which obeisance and sacrifices were offered. That said, our knowledge of the range of artworks in the Nok repertoire increases with almost every piece recovered, as in the current case.

Attribution is problematic, as this style of manufacture is not conventional for any of the Nok subgroups. The absence of exotic hairstyles means it is unlikely to be Katsina. The face is not fully human and is, additionally, expressionistic rather than naturalistic. The face is not elongated, the piece is unusually large, and the eyes are slits rather than pierced triangles (Jemaa) or pierced semicircles under a ridged shelf protruding over both eyes (Sokoto). In balance, the piece displays the most traits that are aligned with the Katsina group, including nugatory limbs, slit eyes (though a non- conventional form) and simple hair/headwear, although it must be said that the attribution of the piece is hampered by its uniqueness. This places the piece at the end of the 1st millennium BC and the first centuries of the 1st millennium AD. As stated, the body is schematic rather than fully detailed, and it may have once been dressed or otherwise adorned. While the limbs are broken, one would suspect that it was sitting with crossed legs and hands resting on the abdomen, as the breaks are consistent with this interpretation and there are in any case other Katsina pieces that share such characters. The nipples are asymmetrical, and so placed as to make a face on the chest, with the necklace (see below) as a nose and the navel (or perhaps stub where the hands once attached) as a mouth. The figure is evidently male. The neck is very long and columnar, as is the rest of the body, and decorated with a simple woven-style necklace with a central diadem. Up to this point the figure resembles other Katsina statues. However, it is the head, surmounted by a plain skullcap/ hairstyle, that is most highly distinctive. Most Katsina faces are refined, tranquil and smooth (if female) or bad-tempered and bearded (if male). In this case, however, the whole face has been pulled out into a snout-like protuberance with a wide slit mouth, slit eyes and a broad, rounded nose with a narrow apex. There is a beard, but rather than being spatulate and delineated as in other Nok pieces, it is smooth and blade-like, and protrudes from beneath the chin in a parallel axis with the body, and overshadowed by the protruding lips. The ears, which are usually small and rounded, are flared and cupped like those of a chimpanzee (or monkey), which the face resembles in so many ways. It is evidently also meant to be a man, however, as his body is generally anthropomorphic, and he is wearing jewellery (and possibly a hat). It is interesting to note that other Nok figures are depicted wrestling with animals, perhaps as a means of capturing their character, or as a demonstration of their strength and social prowess. Perhaps the ape was significant to these groups in some way; as the act of creating such works was doubtless reserved for the socially elevated, it is possible that the attribution of ape characteristics was flattering. Alternatively, it may represent some forest or wild spirit, or deity.

This is a striking and extremely rare masterwork. As one of the most famous artistic foundations in African art history, Nok terracottas are something that no serious collection can afford to be without. - (LSO.572)


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