Nigerian masters of terra cotta

ONE day in 1943 an official of a tin mine near the village of Nok, Nigeria, noticed a terra-cotta head in use as a scarecrow at Jemaa in a potato field belonging to one of the workers. He took the sculpture to the nearby museum; its archaeological importance was at once recognized. Miners in the region were told about the historical value of such objects and asked to inform the museum director of new discoveries. Since that time the workers have found more than 150 pieces of the most ancient sculpture in Nigeria. None is believed older than the ``scarecrow,'' now called the head from Jemaa. Its stylized features convey a sense of fearful power. The long-ago artist knew how to select the appropriate clay and bake it to such perfection that the head has lasted intact over 2,000 years.

Archaeologists and historians using both carbon 14 and thermoluminescence have dated the art of Nok to the period 500 BC-AD 500. Where did these people originate and where did they go?

Today there are still huge gaps in African history; art alone testifies to very early civilizations south of the Sahara Desert. In Nigeria itself several identified cultural patterns are isolated in time and space, while others as in Ife and Benin show visible descent from Nok; however, even here there is no definite continuity.

From Ife comes the delicately modeled ``Head of a Personage'' of about AD 1200. In this ``classical'' period, people were represented with great poetic realism, resulting in a few critics considering Ife art somehow an offshoot of the European Renaissance. Modern science has confirmed Ife to be the climax of a true African success story.

Benin's impressive bronze sculpture is seen in ``The Messenger,'' a fine work of the 1500s. It probably presents a royal servant from Ife customarily sent to Benin on the occasion of a new monarch's ascent to the throne. Note the beautiful surface treatment, unusual hat, strings of beads, chain necklace with cross, and the quiet stylizing. The cat-whisker scarifications on his cheeks indicate he was not a native of Benin.

When the art of Africa is mentioned, one thinks usually of the eloquent masks that so attracted avant-garde artists of our century. Sculpture unearthed in the last few years possesses a presence indicating a close look at life and a regard for the dignity of man.

African art runs the gamut from archaic to classical to modern. In ancient Nigeria artists became masters of terra-cotta sculpture at least by 500 BC, of copper and bronze by AD 500, and of glass pearls by AD 800. Many of their objects that have endured for centuries are just now attracting attention of learned people.

Work continues apace. There are many sites yet to be investigated. What wonders still await?

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