Monumental Nok Terracotta Head and Torso

SKU AM.0425
Circa

400 BC to 400 AD

Dimensions

16″ (40.6cm) high x 9.25″ (23.5cm) wide x 14.75″ (37.5cm) depth

Medium

Terracotta

Origin

Nigeria

Gallery Location

S Korea


 

This monumental sculpture is a highly unusual piece by the Nok. It is primarily remarkable because of its enormous size, and also the pose of the figure. It portrays a male (?) individual from the upper chest upwards, posed as if leaning forward, his chin resting on his right arm, which is in turn crossed over the left. The arms and neck are bound with linear bands denoting jewellery; the hands are simple and spatulate, the ears angular and delicate. The head is exceptionally long and tubular/conical, with a broad brow crowned with an ornate cap decorated with stamped and incised designs. The eyes are heavily lidded and laterally placed, with pierced pupils. The nose is unusual, with large, round, flared nostrils set a good distance apart, with a thick-lipped, large mouth surmounting a cylindrical beard that gives the face its sharp appearance.

The astonishing artistry and early date of Nok pieces makes them among the most important artworks on the African continent. Comparatively little is known of the Nok culture, although the entity – which flourished between 900 BC and 200 AD – is technically a misnomer, for the artistic traditions it represents are the only common characteristics shared by communities that differed in most other respects. Their artworks 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 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. It is to the Katsina Ala group that the current piece can be attributed.

The function of Nok art is unclear, although the care with which it is executed has led some to claim they represent nobility, or perhaps ancestors to which obeisance and sacrifices were offered. The largest ones may have been placed in structures that had ceremonial or ritual importance at the time, while smaller ones may have been personal or domestic talismans or deities/spirits. They are always socially elevated insofar as this can be ascertained (i.e. jewellery, weaponry) although the lack of context makes this speculative at best. The enormous size and rather grand appearance of this piece suggest it is a public rather than private display piece.

The popularity of Nok works has led to extensive reproduction of their better works. This can take various routes. Firstly, one may produce a completely manufactured fake that emulates traditional designs. The other is a to collate several severely damaged ancient statues and fragments into a “restored” external shape that tests authentic when assessed using radiometric dating techniques. In the current case, the piece was first assessed by Barakat Gallery African art specialists for its stylistic and use-wear characters. It was then passed to our conservation department for the restoration was then carried out, ensuring that no extraneous pieces were included. Having been approved, it was then submitted for radiometric testing. It was sampled in various locales and has produced consistent results in all of them; the piece is known to date to 2000 BP +/- 20% = 400 BC to 400 AD. This is an impressive piece of ancient Nok art.

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