Types of Art
Nok refers to the culture associated with a one hundred square kilometer area in central Nigeria where thousands of terracotta figures were found. These figures were first encountered in tin mines by Colonel J. Dent Young in 1928 and were classified as Nok by Bernard Fagg in 1943. Dates associated with Nok were recently categorized into three periods: Early Nok beginning in the middle of the second millennium B.C.E., Middle Nok (900 to 300 B.C.E.), and Late Nok (1500 B.C.E. to the turn of the Common Era) (Franke and Breunig 2014). The majority of objects found at Nok are dated to the Middle period. Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, National Museum in Jos, the National Museum in Kaduma, and National Museum in Lagos all have collections of Nok artifacts. Outside of Nigeria, the Yale University Art Gallery has a collection of Nok objects that was acquired in the 1950s and 1960s by Bayard Rustin, known civil rights activist.
Nok figure sculptures are easily distinguishable by their large heads and facial features. Complete figurines range in size from 300 millimeters to one meter (approximately eleven inches to three feet). Scholars contest that these figures likely depict important political people or ancestors based on the fact that they wear prestigious forms of decoration (Fagg and Lamp 2014). The eyes are D-shaped with perforated pupils and are delineated with simple lines. Eyebrows appear as curved lines or with a slight arch. Ears are placed in perfunctory positions such as the back of the head or at the angle of the jaw. Mouths protrude outwards, are pierced in the center, and sometimes lips are parted. Noses are broad and feature nostrils that are portrayed as holes pierced through the clay. There is a wide variety of hairstyles including “buns, tiers, cones, braids, topknots, ringlets, and tassels” (Fagg and Lamp 2014). Frank Willett argues that there was a decline of Nok style as evidenced by the less naturalistic seated man sculpture as found at the National Museum in Kaduna (Willett 1980). This figure is more simplified with pierced eyes without the D-shaped outlining and eyebrows, its nose is portrayed with two pierced holes and does not have a defined shape, and its mouth is a gaping hole without pronounced lips. The face lacks the sophistication in style of previous Nok terracotta figures.
Anatomical abnormalities such as elephantiasis, a bulbous cranium, and feet with six toes, among others, are featured in some of the figures. Animals such as elephants, ticks, bats, monkeys, and snakes are also common. There are also double-headed and double figures, which is a common motif in West African art. There is also a group of Janus-faced and paired figurines that were excavated at Ungwar Kura, Taka Lafiya, Gwari, and Dakko. These range in height from 6.5 to 11 centimeters (approximately 2.6 to 4.3 inches). Of the four figurines that are still mostly in tact, three of them have faces on either side of the body. The other example features two figures side by side, and the one on the right is damaged.
Some of the earliest examples of sophisticated sculpture in sub-Saharan Africa come from the Nok culture. We do not know what the people called themselves, so the culture was named after the town of Nok where the first object was found. The fired clay or terracotta sculptures range in size from small pendant to life-size figures. Archaeological artifacts have been found in Nigeria, primarily to the north of the Niger-Benue River confluence and below the Jos escarpment. According to some accounts, based on artistic similarities between early Yoruba art forms and Nok forms, there may be connections between Nok culture and contemporary Yoruba peoples.
Facts about Nok