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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Katsina/Nok Sculpture of a Hermaphrodite
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Katsina/Nok Sculpture of a Hermaphrodite - LSO.569
Origin: Nigeria
Circa: 200 BC to 200 AD
Dimensions: 23" (58.4cm) 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.

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. It is however an important issue to resolve, for the Nok are believed to be a forerunner of the Ife and Benin sculptural tradition.

The current specimen displays characteristics of the Katsina style, with its plain headwear, facial characteristics and nugatory appendicular anatomy. The Katsina polity is contemporary with the Sokoto and the later Nok “classical” style in the early centuries of the 1st millennium AD. This date has been confirmed by independent thermoluminescence testing, which yielded a date of between 2300 +/- 460 BP, or 810BC to 160 AD (a copy of the report will be provided). Statistically, the latter is more probable, although the full temporospatial range of the Katsina polity is far from fully understood. Socially, little is known of the Katsina owing to the paucity of controlled excavations in their presumed area of origin, although they were seemingly sedentary farmers in the generalised Iron Age tradition.

The piece is built on an imposing scale, and while most Katsina pieces are designed to cap the top of large ceramic vessels, this appears to have been made to be a freestanding figure. It is therefore something of a rarity. The general impression of the piece is one of serenity. The head, capped with a simple skullcap, is angular in design with a high domed forehead and a broad jaw narrowing to a firm chin. The eyes, unlike the triangular and drilled Nok models, are bulbous eminences with curvilinear slits and small piercings. The ears are also marked by drilled holes. The neck is long and thick, coming down onto a more schematic and generalised body that contrasts sharply with the carefully-executed head. The arms are folded onto what appear to be poles that attach around the back of the figure. It is probable that the significance of this pose is something specific to the Katsina and unknowable to modern onlookers. Most unusually, the figure displays male and female characteristics, which makes it one of the earliest West African hermaphrodites of which the current author is aware.

As stated above, the role and function of Nok art is speculative at best, and the Katsina are even more mysterious. However, from the current piece one might make some conclusions. The size and impact of the piece makes it unlikely that it was a purely decorative or secular item. Further, the unusual sexual imagery is unlikely to have been a passé frivolity on the part of the sculptor. The fairly plain nature of the body suggests that we are not seeing the whole picture, and indeed it is likely that the figure was painted, anointed or even dressed when it was being used by the society in which it was made. We are unlikely to know the precise details of this piece’s social function, but the imposing and masterfully-modelled nature of the sculpting makes it a truly remarkable, rare and unusual masterpiece. - (LSO.569)


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