The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Igbo Art in Social Context

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

Prime Minister of Oguta in his meeting room, Oguta, 1983. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.


Oguta is a Benin-influenced state governed (unlike most of Igboland) by a hierarchy of chiefs. In the foreground are Ikenga shrines (see page six of this essay) and Ofo (a symbol of ancestral wisdom and authority), and to the right are the elephant tusk trumpets that belonged to ancestral holders of this high office.

Like the man in the photo on page one of this essay, this chief wears eagle feathers in his cap, also symbolic of high title. One praise name of such men is "the one whose father is elephant, whose father gave eagle feathers." He also sits on a leopard skin, wears a leopard teeth necklace and an ukara cloth wrapper, an expensive prestige fabric imported from the Cross River region to the east, where it is made and is also associated with male power (and the Ekpe society). The imported red garments and armrest are an influence from Benin, where red is associated especially with war chiefs, thus aggression and danger. Elephant, leopard, eagle, and python are root symbols in Igbo thought and life: at once beautiful, swift, dangerous, powerful, predatory and kings of their varied realms and sometimes, messengers of the gods (Earth in the case of python).

Both men and women thus wear symbolic emblems to signal their status, wealth, office, and power, and that tie in with animal metaphors widely distributed across the African continent. So even though this is personal art, it has content shared among many different African peoples.