The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Igbo Art in Social Context

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

A titled Igbo woman wearing ivory and rich cloth, which are title prerogatives, near Ugbene (Nsukka area to the north), 1983. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.


Women also take titles in many parts of Igboland, with rare, heavy segments of white elephant tusk ivory (symbolizing both wealth and purity) being the most common visible attribute (and also employed similarly by men, see page four of this essay). They also wear white cloth or expensive imports such as the eyelet brocade in this image.

The women of Onitsha, an important Benin-influenced market city-state on the Niger River, join the Elephant Society, as their title institution is called. These women, often exceptionally wealthy from their mercantile skills, oversee much of the market trade, are reputed to have prophetic powers, and are responsible for making sacrifices that drive evil from the community. This power is thus far from "behind the scenes,'' even if it is often less visible than the sorts of authority vested in some ranking males in Onitsha and a few other Igbo communities where chiefs are important.