Sculpture of the Sub-Saharan Civilizations

Sculpture of the Nok

Two of the best examples of ancient terra cotta sculptures are from the Nok culture in Nigeria and from an ancient culture who lived near modern Lydenburg, South Africa.

Learning Objectives

Compare the ancient terra cotta sculptures from the Nok culture in Nigeria to those found near present-day Lydenburg, South Africa

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Nok culture , existing in Nigeria from around 1500 BCE to 200 CE, was the earliest sub-Saharan producer of life-sized terra cotta sculptures.
  • The large Nok sculptures are hollow, with detailed, stylized features. Striking similarities between terra cotta Nok sculptures and later wooden sculptures by Yoruba sculptors have led scholars to speculate whether the two cultures are related.
  • While the function of Nok sculptures is largely unknown, theories include use as grave markers, ancestral portrayal, or charms to protect against crop failure, infertility, or illness.
  • The Lydenburg Heads are human-shaped terra cotta sculptures discovered in Lydenburg, South Africa. Their image has since become associated with awards for achievement in the arts.

Key Terms

  • terra cotta: A hard red-brown unglazed earthenware, used for pottery and building construction.
  • finial: Any decorative fitting at the peak of a flagpole, fence post or staircase newel post.

The earliest identified Nigerian culture is the Nok culture, which thrived between 1500 BCE and 200 CE on the Jos Plateau in northeastern Nigeria. Information is lacking from the first millennium BCE following the Nok ascendancy. However, by the second millennium BCE, active trade routes had developed from Ancient Egypt via Nubia through the Sahara to the forest. Savanna peoples acted as intermediaries in exchanges of various goods. Reasons for the Nok’s sudden disappearance remains unknown.

Nok and Lydenburg Terra Cotta Sculptures

Ancient terra cotta sculptures in the form of human bodies or heads have been found in several areas of sub-Saharan Africa, providing glimpses into the cultures that existed in the region. Two of the best examples are from the Nok culture in present-day Nigeria and from an ancient culture living near the present-day town of Lydenburg, South Africa.


Similarities in artwork suggest the Nok culture evolved into the later Yoruba culture of Ife. One example is this sculpture of a woman, which bears a striking resemblance to an early 20th-century sculpture of a king and queen mother by the Yoruba artist Olowe of Ise. The Nok culture was the earliest sub-Saharan producer of life-sized terra cotta sculptures.

Side view of the female figurine.

Female figurine: Terra cotta. 48 cm tall. Nok culture. c. 515-1215 CE.

The first scattered fragments were discovered on the Jos Plateau during a tin mining expedition in 1928. The terra cotta figures are hollow, and while some include plant and animal motifs , the most well-known are of human heads and bodies that often reach life-sized proportions. These human sculptures contain very detailed and stylized features, abundant jewelry, and varied postures. Some even illustrate physical ailments, disease, or facial paralysis. While their function is largely unknown, theories include use as ancestor portrayal, grave markers, finials for roofs of buildings, or charms to protect against crop failure, infertility, or illness.

A figure depicted sitting with his chin resting on his knee.

Nok Sculpture: Nok sculptures may have been used as grave markers, charms, or portrayals of ancestors. Terra cotta. Sixth century BCE-sixth century CE. Nigeria.

Researchers suggest that Nok ceramics were likely shaped by hand from coarse-grained clay and then sculpted with a technique similar to wood carving. After drying, the sculptures were covered with slip and polished to produce a smooth, glossy surface. The firing process probably resembled that used today in Nigeria, in which the sculptures are covered with grass, twigs, and leaves and burned for several hours.


Lydenburg, a town in Mpumalanga, South Africa, is also known for the discovery of some of the earliest forms of African sculpture. The Lydenburg Heads (400-500 CE) are terra cotta sculptures similar to those of the Nok. Found in the area in the late 1950s, their function is still unknown, although they likely served a ritualistic purposes as masks, ornamentation, or part of ceremonial regalia.

This image of a Lyndenburg Head shows the long and wide shape, with a wide mouth and small eyes.

Lyndenburg Head: The Lydenburg Heads are the earliest known examples of African sculpture in Southern Africa. Two of the heads are large enough to have been ceremonial helmet masks. The five smaller heads have a hole on either side of the neck, by which they could have been attached to a pole or costume during a performance. One of the small heads has an animal-like nose and mouth, which would have been of symbolic importance to the makers of the heads.

Since their discovery, these heads have come to symbolize African art and won multiple awards. The image of the Lydenburg head can be seen both on the badge given by the South African Order of Ikhamanga representing achievement in the arts and in the Golden Horn trophy of the South African Film and Television Awards, which signifies excellence in visual creative arts, performance, and drama.


The Order of Ikhamanga: An image of the Order of Ikhamanga, where the Lydenburg head can be seen in the center.

Sculpture of the Igbo-Ukwu

The Nigerian town of Igbo-Ukwu is notable for archaeological sites where highly sophisticated bronze artifacts were discovered.

Learning Objectives

Describe the discovery, production, and function of Igbo bronze art, masquerades, sculptures, and mbari

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Excavations in Igbo-Ukwu have found highly sophisticated bronze artifacts from the earliest known age of bronze casting , dating to the ninth or tenth century CE.
  • The three sites were discovered from 1938-1959 and include Igbo Isaiah (a shrine), Igbo Richard (a burial chamber), and Igbo Jonah (a cache ).
  • These artifacts are likely from the burial of a highly important person. They include ritual vessels , pendants, crowns and breastplates, jewelry, ceramics , copper and iron objects, and thousands of glass beads.
  • The bronze castings, made in stages using the lost wax technique, illustrate the artisans’ high level of skill.
  • In addition to the artifacts at Igbo-Ukwu, the Igbo people are known for hammered jewelry, masks, Mbari houses, and mud sculptures.

Key Terms

  • cache: A store of things that may be required in the future such as food, which can be retrieved rapidly but is protected or hidden in some way.

Igbo-Ukwu, a town of the Igbo people in southeastern Nigeria, is notable for three archaeological sites where excavations have found bronze artifacts from a sophisticated metal-working culture dating to the ninth or tenth century. This is the earliest known example of a bronze-casting society in the region by hundreds of years.

The first of the sites, Igbo Isaiah, is a shrine uncovered in 1938 by Isaiah Anozie, a local villager who stumbled upon the bronze works while digging beside his home. Subsequent excavations by Thurston Shaw in 1959 resulted in the discovery of two other sites: Igbo Richard, a burial chamber, and Igbo Jonah, thought to be a cache.

Some metal objects were hammered into their current forms , including many pieces of jewelry. A woman’s anklet now housed in the British Museum consists of a central leg tube that extends over an inch beyond the center (approximately 2.75 inches in diameter). Its disk is incised with intricate abstract designs.


Igbo brass anklet: Anklet beaten from a solid brass bar.

Igbo Bronze Art

Most bronze sculptures were made in stages using the lost wax technique, an ancient casting process commonly using wax. Many of the castings integrated small decorative items and designs, showing the artisans’ high level of skill. Some of the bronzes were likely part of the furniture in the burial chamber of a king or other noble. In addition to a variety of ritual vessels, bronze items include pendants, crowns and breastplates, staff ornaments , swords, and fly-whisk handles .

The elaborately designed human head and ram head are displayed on a wall.

Human and ram’s head pendants : The elaborate designs and casting in bronzes such as this one point to the Igbo people’s high level of skill.

A photo of the elaborately designed vessel.

Igbo Ukwu bronze: A ceremonial vessel made around the ninth century CE.

Other artifacts discovered in the sites include jewelry, ceramics, a corpse adorned in what appears to be regalia, and many assorted copper and iron objects. Tens of thousands of glass beads were also discovered, suggesting a long-distance trading system with places as far away as Egypt, Venice , or India.

Other Examples of Igbo Art

Prior to British colonialism , the Igbo were a fragmented and diverse group, a quality reflected in its artistic styles . Besides the bronze artifacts discovered in the twentieth century, Igbo art is generally known for various types of masquerade masks and outfits symbolizing people, animals, or abstract images. The New Yam Festival is an annual cultural festival held at the end of the rainy season in early August to symbolize the conclusion of a harvest and the beginning of the next work cycle. The celebration ties individual Igbo communities together as essentially agrarian and dependent on yam.

A photo from the festival featuring an elaborately dressed participant and others.

New Yam Festival: On the right, a participant wears an elaborate mask and headdress with attire made of raffia. The festival in this photograph  was organized by Igbo residents of Dublin, Ireland.

Igbo art is also famous for Mbari houses, large open-sided square planned shelters containing life-sized mud sculptures. These painted figures–sculpted in the form of deities , animals, legendary creatures, ancestors, officials, craftsmen, and foreigners–are made to appease the earth goddess. The process of building Mbari houses often takes years and is regarded as sacred. Therefore, new ones are regularly constructed, while old ones are left to decay.

A black and white photo of a group of men working on the roof of a Mbari house.

Construction of a Mbari house: Detail of the upper level and roof.

A unique structure of Igbo culture is the Nsude Pyramids , a group of ten pyramidal clay and mud structures built as temples for the goddess Ala/Uto, believed to reside at the top. Everyday houses were made of mud and thatched roofs and had bare earth floors with carved doors. Some houses had elaborate designs both in the interior and exterior, including Uli art designed by Igbo women.

Ile-Ife and Benin Sculpture

The Yoruba and Benin cultures produced bronze and ivory sculptures in modern Nigeria from the 13th through the 19th centuries.

Learning Objectives

Describe the characteristics of Ile-Ife and Benin sculpture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Ife is home to the Yoruba people in southwestern Nigeria. The city was established near the ninth century CE, and reached its artistic peak between 1200 and 1400 CE.
  • Ife is most well-known for its bronze sculptures, typically in a naturalistic style . Stone and terra cotta artwork was also common, and leaders were often depicted with large heads to indicate their power.
  • The Benin Empire, which ruled Nigeria from the 11th to the late 19th century, produced sculptures in a wide variety of media for political, social, and religious purposes.
  • In the 15th century, contact with Portuguese traders and colonists resulted in the incorporation of European styles into Benin art.

Key Terms

  • terra cotta: A hard red-brown unglazed earthenware used for pottery and building construction.
  • deities: Divine beings; gods or goddesses.


Ife is the home to the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria, located in the present-day Osun State. The Yoruba people comprise one of the largest ethnic groups in Sub-Saharan Africa, constituting close to 40 million people predominantly in Nigeria. Evidence of habitation at the site dates to as early as 600 BCE. Some evidence suggests the Yoruba developed from the Nok culture (1000 BCE–500 CE).

The meaning of the word “ife” in Yoruba is “expansion.” According to Yoruba faith, the city of Ife is where all of humanity originated: Oduduwa created the world where Ife would be built, and his brother Obatala created the first humans out of clay. The city was a settlement of substantial size between the ninth and 12th centuries CE. Production of Yoruba artwork reached its peak between 1200 and 1400 CE, after which it declined as political and economic power shifted to the nearby kingdom of Benin.

Artwork of Ife

Ife is best known for its naturalistic bronze sculptures. Hollow-cast bronze art created by the Yoruba culture provides an example of realism in precolonial African art. Important people were often depicted with large heads, as the Yoruba believed that the Ase, or inner power and energy of a person, resided in the head. Their rulers were often depicted with their mouths covered so that the power of their speech would not be too great .


Ife Bronze Sculpture: Sculpture of a king’s head, held in the British Museum.

Stone and terra cotta artwork were also common in Ife. More elaborate festivals organized to worship deities were also common. These would often extend over several days and involve theatrical dramatizations in the palace and kingdom.

In his book “The Oral Traditions in Ile-Ife,” Yemi D. Prince referred to the terra cotta artists of 900 CE as the founders of art guilds , cultural schools of philosophy similar to Europe’s old institutions of learning. These guilds may be some of the oldest non-Abrahamic African centers of learning still in existence.


The Benin Empire was a precolonial African kingdom that ruled Nigeria from the eleventh century to 1897. Not to be confused with the present-day country of Benin, this empire dissolved into what is today the Edo State of Nigeria, marked by the capital , Benin City. At its height, the empire developed an advanced artistic culture and produced beautiful artifacts of bronze, iron and ivory .

Art of Benin

The Benin Empire was known for its many works of art, including religious objects, ceremonial weapons, masks, animal heads, figurines , busts, and plaques. Typically made from bronze, brass, clay, ivory, terra cotta, or wood, most pieces were produced at the court of the Oba (king) and used to illustrate achievements of the empire or narrate mythical stories. Iconic imagery depicted religious, social, and cultural issues central to their beliefs, and many bronze plaques featured representations of the Oba.

Various works promoted theological and religious piety, while others narrated past events and achievements (actual or mythical). During the reign of the Kingdom of Benin, the characteristics of the artwork shifted from thin castings and careful treatment to thick, less defined castings and generalized features.

This sculpture depicts two elaborately carved figures wearing armor and holding weapons.

Sculpture of the Benin Kingdom: This sculpture, one of the many examples of Benin Bronzes held in museums around the world, depicts the generalized figures that frequently appear in Benin art. 16th-18th century. Nigeria.

One of the most common artifacts today is the ivory mask based on Queen Idia, the mother of Oba Esigie who ruled from 1504-1550. Now commonly known as the Festac mask, it was used in 1977 as the logo of the Nigeria-hosted Second Festival of Black & African Arts and Culture.

The mask features a serene face of the queen mother wearing a headdress as well as scarification highlighted by iron inlay on the forehead, all framed by an openwork tiara and collar.

Pendant ivory mask of Queen Idia: Iyoba ne Esigie (meaning: Queen mother of Oba Esigie), court of Benin, 16th century.

Another object unique to Benin art is the Ikegobo (“altars to the hand”), a cylindrical votive object. Used as a cultural marker of an individual’s accomplishments, Ikegobo were dedicated to the hand, from which the Beninese considered all will for wealth and success to originate. These commemorative objects were made of brass, wood, terra cotta, or clay depending on the patron ‘s hierarchical ranking.

Portuguese Influence

The peak of the Benin art occurred in the fifteenth century with the arrival of the Portuguese missionaries and traders. By that point, Benin was already highly militarized and economically developed. However, the arrival of the Portuguese catalyzed a process of even greater political and artistic development.

Because of Benin’s military strength, Portuguese missionaries were unable to enslave its people upon their arrival in the fifteenth century. Instead, a trade network was established in which the Benin Empire traded beautiful works of art for luxury items from Portugal, such as beads, cloth, and brass manillas for casting. The wealth of Benin’s art was credited with preventing the empire from becoming economically dependent on the Portuguese.

As trade flourished, Benin art began to depict European influence through technique, imagery, and themes. Bronze work reached its height during this era, and today the Benin Bronzes are regarded as some of the finest works of that time. These depict a variety of scenes including animals, court life, Portuguese sailors, and relationships between the Benin Empire and the Portuguese. They were cast in matching pairs (although each was individually made), and may have originally been nailed to walls and pillars in the palace as decoration.


Benin plaque: The background portrays the floral pattern characteristic of plaques made at this time and reflective of Portuguese influence. The image in the plaque consists of an Oba (king) surrounded by his subjects. Apart from military and political strength, the plaque illustrates the relationship between the Portuguese and the Benin traders. 16th century.

In 1897, the British led the Punitive Expedition in which they ransacked the Benin kingdom and destroyed or confiscated much of their artwork. Over 3,000 brass plaques were seized and are now held in museums around the world.

In 1936, Oba Akenzua II began a movement to return the art to its place of origin. Nigeria bought approximately 50 bronzes from the British Museum between the 1950s and 1970s and has repeatedly called for the return of the remainder.

Sculpture of the Kingdom of Kongo

The Kingdom of Kongo was a highly developed state in the 13th century, best known for its nkisi (power objects).

Learning Objectives

Discuss the function of Kongolese nkisi and nkondi

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Kingdom of Kongo was first established in the 13th century and was a highly developed state by the time of European contact.
  • Kongo had an extensive trading network that included ivory , copperware, ferrous metal goods, cloth, and pottery.
  • Nkisi are containers such as ceramic vessels , gourds, animal horns, or shells designed to hold spiritually-charged substances. They were believed to aid in communication with the dead.
  • Nkisi made in the shape of humans or animals were often used in divination practices for healing or good fortune.
  • Nkondi, whose etymological root comes from the word meaning “to hunt,” are believed to protect the user from forces of evil.

Key Terms

  • ferrous: Iron-based.
  • anthropomorphic: Having the form or attributes of a human.
  • zoomorphic: Having the shape, form, or likeness of an animal.

The Kingdom of the Kongo was an African kingdom located in west central Africa in what is now northern Angola, Cabinda, the western portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the southernmost part of Gabon. At its greatest extent, it reached from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Kwango River in the east, and from the Congo River in the north to the Kwanza River in the south.


Map of Precolonial Africa: The Kingdom of Kongo is circled in red.

The first king of the Kingdom was Lukeni lua Nimi (circa 1280-1320). By the time of the first recorded contact with the Europeans, the kingdom was a highly developed state at the center of an extensive trading network. Apart from natural resources and ivory, the country manufactured and traded copperware, ferrous metal goods, raffia cloth, and pottery. The eastern regions were particularly famous for cloth production.

A wide mouthed pottery basin with a simple, natural finish.

An example of Kongo pottery: Made of ceramic and vegetable dye, such pottery was widely manufactured in the Kingdom of Kongo.

Artistically, the Kingdom of Kongo is perhaps best known for its nkisi (singular: minkisi), objects believed to be inhabited by spirits. Early travelers often called nkisi “fetishes” or “idols,” as some were made in human form . Modern anthropology has generally called them either “power objects” or “charms.” As in many African cultures , the Kongo religion placed great importance on communication with ancestors, believing that exceptional human powers could result from this communication. Nkisi were containers such as ceramic vessels, gourds, animal horns, or shells, designed to hold spiritually charged substances. Sometimes considered “portable graves,” elements like earth or relics from the grave of a powerful individual were often placed in the bellies of nkisi. The powers of the dead thus infused the object, placing it under control of the ngaga (healer, diviner, or mediator).

Nkisi were often used in divination practices, for healing, or for good fortune in hunting, trade, or sex. Most famously, nkisi take the form of anthropomorphic or zoomorphic wooden carvings. Birds of prey, dogs (closely tied to the spiritual world in Kongo theology), lightning, weapons, and fire are all common themes. The substances chosen for inclusion in nkisi are frequently called “bilongo” or “milongo” (singular nlongo) a word often translated as “medicine.” However, their operation was not primarily pharmaceutical, as they were not applied to or ingested by the infirm. Rather, they were frequently chosen for metaphoric reasons, such as correcting illicit behavior.

A dark colored carving of a human-like figure with a large head and a protruding abdomen painted a light color.

Minkisi: The light area on the figure’s abdomen is a glass “window” that would hold “medicine” used for correcting illicit or immoral behavior.

Nkondi – often referred to as “nail fetishes” – are an aggressive type of nkisi that were thought to be activated by having nails driven into them. Each nail or metal piece represented a vow, a signed treaty, and efforts to abolish evil. Although nkisi nkondi have probably been made since at least the 16th century, the nailed figures were most likely made in the northern part of the Kongo in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A figurine of a female with nails protruding from her body.

Female power figure of the Vili people – Democratic Republic of Congo: While this figure was made by the Vili people, it is similar to the nkisi nkondi made by people in the Kongo Kingdom.

The name nkondi derives from the verb -konda, meaning “to hunt” and thus nkondi means “hunter” because they can hunt down and attack evildoers or enemies. The object’s primary function is to house a spirit that can hunt down the source or sources of evil that threaten an individual or an entire village. While some nkondi figures appear relatively benign, like the example above, others assume more aggressive body language and facial expressions to demonstrate their ability to attack evildoers successfully.

A figure in an aggressive position with many nails protruding from its body.

Minkisi nkondi: This figure assumes a more aggressive facial expression and body language.

Some nkondi assume zoomorphic forms, such as this sculpture of a protective wild animal.

A figure of an animal with its mouth open, covered in nails.

Detail of a zoomorphic nkondi: Wood, metal, and porcelain. Eighteenth-nineteenth century.