Igbo Art in Social Context

by Herbert M. Cole
Professor Emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara

An Ozo titled man with his wife on the day of his installation, Agwa, 1983. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.


Title-taking validates individual achievement in this competitive, egalitarian and largely acephalous (chiefless) agricultural society. The Igbo, population ca. twelve to fifteen million, are among the larger ethnic groups of West Africa. Government in pre-colonial times was by councils of elders and titled men, except in the few areas (especially those influenced by Benin and Edo peoples) that had chiefs.

Conceptually, the human couple stands at the base of Igbo culture as the procreative social unit responsible for the family (or corporate lineage). The lineage is the fundamental institution upon which Igbo society is based. Although ostensibly and publicly male dominated, women are nevertheless accorded substantial power, both in everyday life (market women often become very wealthy and powerful) and in the arts. Male-female duality and reciprocity are in fact stressed in Igbo thought and art, as this selection of images makes clear.

Here both the man and woman wear elaborate uli, an indigo body painting style executed by women on occasions of celebration. The man purchases his title with yams (the main prestige crop) and money, which are shared out among holders of that title. Ozo is the name of the major graded title institution and also its highest, most coveted, rank.