Many people tend to take art and design for granted yet it is prevalent in our everyday lives. Art is the use of imagination, an individual’s perception and expression of something special.
This can be in form of fine arts such as paintings and sculptures, visual such as television, advertisements and logos, and architecture. Design incorporates simplicity and effectiveness; it tries to solve the difficulties faced by man in the day to day life.
Factors such as cost effectiveness, materials, negatives (environmental) and function are well-thought-out by designers. Together, designers and artists play a vital role in the society.
Through their innovative pursuits, they portray a picture or a reflection of the world we live in. They help represent our culture, agriculture, social custom, beliefs and religion.
Art and design is everywhere, from our phones, laptops, pens, bottles, clothing, roads, vehicles, trains and aero-planes (Davidson, 2000).
One of the most significant pieces of art is the Nok art, a testament of the Nok culture. The Nok culture appeared in the region of West Africa in Nigeria. It describes the Nok Sculpture of northern Nigeria which date from 500BC to 200AD.
The Nok sculptures, the terracotta statues, are considered as the earliest traces of the remarkable tradition of sculpture south of Sahara. Discovery of the sculptures in 1943 indicate the use of iron, the practice of smelting for tools and forgery.
The Nok sculptures varied in sizes from miniature statues to massive sculptures of kneeling, seated and standing postures, mostly of kings and priests. Depicting humans and animals, the most popular of the Nok sculptures are the terracotta heads.
The main characteristic feature of the Nok terracottas is their hollow structure. They are sculpted from clay rolls and dried by firing in open air and closed ovens. Fragmented and eroded by damage and age, some Nok heads are believed to be part of complete bodies.
Many of these sculptures were modeled individually in an additive technique; others were sculpted in the subtractive technique. This characteristic subtractive method suggests a comparable carving practice (Rupp & Breunig, 2005).
Due to erosion by water, rolling and age most of the terracotta fragments have undergone minor restorations which were very much needed so as to capture the essence of the art. Proportionally the heads are relatively larger than the rest of the bodies, reasons for these remains unknown.
Perforated ears, mouths, triangular shaped eyes with pierced pupils are some of the typical stylistic features of the Nok heads. Distinctive hairstyles, the use of ornaments and jewels, variety of beauty in the design provides an enthralling record of body decoration and adornment in the Nok culture.
The health system of the Nok culture was also represented in some of the figurines with some pieces sculptured to reflect diseases such as elephantiasis and paralysis. An example of a Nok terracotta is the RAFIN KURA HEAD found at Rafin Kura in Nigeria.
The Rafin Kura head has a hollow mouth with separated lips, large pierced eyes and widening nostrils. Heralded as the primary proof of pre-colonial civilization, the Nok culture remains a conundrum.
The importance, function and meaning of the Nok terracottas is generally still unknown (Kleiner, 2009).
Terracotta figures have also been found in Greece, Egypt, Persia, Assyria, China, Italy, and Germany and in North and West Africa. These cultures used coils of clay that ware fairly coarse and porous.
When fired in kilns they assumed a color stretching from dull ochre to red. In the northern parts of Nigeria, clay is readily available: the soil is rich in red-orange ochre. The soil contains pebbles of grains which when mixed with water produce coils of clay ready to be modeled into sculptures.
The diverse variety of pebbles in the soil provides a perfect glaze which gave the impression of a real human skin to the terracottas. For monumental statutes, more than a meter in height and weighing more than fifty kilograms, firing was done in the open air.
Due to their hollow structures the craftsmen working in the environments of Nok employed care to maintain equal thickness on the whole sculpture. The perforated eyes, noses, ears and mouths enabled equalize the heat during the firing process.
Archeology suggests that, the artisans of that period used tree trunks and branches as the central core of the sculptures to prevent breakage or explosion during the firing process. The artists applied the clay rolls round the woody cores and sculptured by hand.
During the burning process the woody core would burn slowly thus ensuring a perfect heat distribution. This method is also applied to date in Nigeria; the pieces are covered with grass and twigs then burned for a number of hours.
The final product with the wooden core burnt to ashes, the sculpture polished, smoothened and dried appeared to be shiny with a glossy surface.
This shows the degree of competence of the Nok people, the talent and experience of the artisans and craftsmen of that period was enormous (Onians, 2004).
Nok is located in the Jaba Local Government, Kaduna state in northern Nigeria. Nok art was discovered in the archeological sites of Samun Dukiya and Taruga.
Similarities between the two archeological sites found in this area suggest a relationship between various farming cultures that employed iron tools (Rupp & Breunig, 2005). It is believed that this association could have had an influence on the Nok culture.
For instance, the use of the subtractive technique; this is similar to that of wood- carving. Margaret Sanchez, a curator in the Cleveland Museum of Art, expounds this belief.
She notes the similarities in the manner of modeling Nok ceramics and sculpturing employed in wood carving. There is a common belief among archeologists and scholars of the existence of a culture that proceeded that of the Nok, this is because of the complexity of the Nok art work.
The art of firing, the use of iron as well as the technical competency in their arts could be as a result of past influence (Grunne, 1998).
With more than thirty museums, Nigeria is on the forefront in the preservation of culture and history. Most of these museums specialize on art, history and archeology. Centrally located at Lagos, the National Museum of Lagos holds many of the Nok Terracottas.
Another museum that holds figurines attributed to the Nok people is the Jos national Museum. Hundreds of Nok figurines have been preserved and exhibited in museums worldwide. There are records of Nok arts in the United States, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and other private collections (Kleiner & Mamiya, 2008).
The techniques used to restore some worn out and fragmented pieces is very interesting; they have succeeded in capturing the expression, the emotion and the presence of the art. Art is meant to portray a society’s culture, their way of life.
Art in some way talks to the audience; as much as their function or meaning is unknown I believe the Nok sculpture captivates the audience. It provides information on the way of life of the Nok people of that period.
As seen earlier, their discovery provided evidence of iron usage, their leadership system, level of know-how and social activities. Appreciation and respect for art is widespread hence sensitivity.
Conservation of such relics has been a major challenge to conservationists; compounded by ignorance about the nature of the ceramics and dangers of the diverse methods of cleaning.
Personally I like how well preserved the Terracotta heads are. A visit to the museum or even a search in the internet would be very beneficial to art enthusiasts.
In my personal experience at the National Museum of Lagos, I had the opportunity of having a good look at a magnificent piece of art. You get to see how good the Nok people were at creating the terracottas; you get the sense that they are looking right at you.
Tourists, researchers and scholars have continued to flood the Nok museums and the Nok region. This shows the growing interest in art in the society which in turn encourages and promotes conservation of priceless artifacts.
Scholars, researchers agree that the Nok culture made the transition from Stone Age to Iron Age (Hirst, 2009). The Nok sculptures currently occupy a significant but secluded space in the African history of Art.
Davidson, S. (2000). Studying Art and Design: A Questions and Answers Subject Guide.Crimson Publishing.
Grunne, B. Luxembourg, B. (1998). The birth of art in Africa: Nok statuary in Nigeria. University of Michigan.
Hirst, K. (2009). African Iron Age. The Spread of Iron – A Timeline and Definition.
Kleiner, F. (2008). Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Volume I. Cengage Learning EMEA.
Kleiner, F. & Mamiya, C. (2009). Gardner’s Art through the Ages: Non-Western Perspectives. Edition13, revised. Cengage Learning.
Onians, J. (2004). Atlas of World Art. Laurence King Publishing.
Rupp, A. & Breunig, P. (2005). New Studies on the Nok Culture of Central Nigeria. Journal of African Archaeology, Vol. 3.