Early Africa in Terracotta
Artistic expressions from the region of Nok.
The early history of Africa is written in terracotta. Clay was once the chosen element employed to shape countless expressions, which are known to us today as the oldest forms of art in Africa.
Its antiquity, of about 2,000 years is, in some instances, explained due to the scarcity of other raw materials among ethnic groups. The use of metals would incite the greed of the smelters who've melted and transformed it. The use of wood would inevitably fall under the pray of termites. Therefore, terracotta, given its low value, was employed on various occasions.
Additionally, clay offered the advantage of being shaped by the hands of artisans, without the need for extra equipment. As for its cooking, the making of pottery for daily use existed in Africa for millennia.
Some terracotta figures would be left out to dry with the sunlight, while others would be boiled in the ashes of an open oven, at about 300ºC, or at even higher temperatures as a means for creating more resistant figures.
Memories of the Nok Region
As far as we know today, the terracotta figures found near the territory of the Nok, in central Nigeria, are one of the oldest, being dated according to thermoluminescence studies between 500 b. C. and 500 a. C.
The artisans who worked in the territory of Nok used the same material for their sculpted figures as for their kitchen utensils, coarse-grained clay.
Some of these figures could reach up to 1,20 meters, signaling a magistral dominance of the molding and open-air cooking techniques. Many of the sculpted figures are hollow, for which the sculptor had to sustain the same thickness throughout the figure and empty the parts that perhaps exploded while exposed to the heat.
The technical competency, as well as the stylistic dominance, discerned in these sculptures, motivates us to believe that the art proceeding from the Nok region represents the unfolding of a vast artistic tradition in Africa.
In no form or shape does one observe discrepancies or doubts, indicating that the characteristics of the Nok technique were articulately defined.
The eyes draw attention, first of all, because of their importance in the facial composition. They may either form an arc of a circle or a triangle below which the eyebrows counteract the curvature of the lower eyelids.
Similar to the Head of Jemaa above, the pupils are often deeply pierced, as are the holes in the nose, the ears, and in instances, the mouth. The lips are well delineated, by an upper lip that closely reaches the bottom of the nose. The expression of the whole is quite lively, all the more so since even the hairstyle is faithfully reproduced.
The taste for adornments among the groups inhabiting the region of Nok is indisputable. Some of the statuettes found, depict small characters that literally crawl under the weight of necklaces and bracelets. Surprisingly, along with them have been found hundreds of quartz beads and other materials from which these adornments were made.
While most of the head figures closely resemble reality as far as their form goes, others appear as if submitted to austere geometrical schemes, based on spheres, cylinders, and cones. The motive for these transformations remains unknown.
Either way, it cannot be due to incompetence, since the figures of animal heads found in the Nok region demonstrate that the sculptors were capable of creating completely realistic depictions that evoke life.
The reason behind these contrasts could be hypothesized as respective to existing religious taboos in the region.
Some experts explain these stylistic variations as being due to the fear carried by certain sculptors, of being accused of sorcery if they created totally realistic human figures and heads. Similarly, others have said that certain animals were reproduced with greater accuracy because they formed part of the religious beliefs at the time.
In the first millennia after the death of Christ, the art of Nok began to decline, as evidenced by lower quality terracotta figures. Even so, they reveal that the tradition had continuity.
By observing the art of latter groups in the region, such as the Ifé, a group that has given the world some of the most beautiful and early creations of Black Africa, the Nok influence remains omnipresent.