The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Igbo Art in Social Context

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

Portal of a domestic compound belonging to a man of Ozo title, Nnokwa (near Onitsha). Door and panel carver: Ife Aku, ca. 1966. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.


Title attributes extend to buildings, architectural decorations, and spatial configurations not available to those of lesser status, and people of highest title are allowed visible markers of such distinction. This gateway, a threshold from the public space of the village into the privacy of a domestic compound, is dramatized by a carved door and adjacent panels and by elaborate polychrome painting. A male artist carved the door and panels in a largely geometric style of low-relief known as chip-carving. These and the surfaces of the sun dried earthen walls were then painted by women of the compound, probably just prior to a major festival or when a compound member was initiated into a high title. Thus the family living here is announced to the wider community and passersby as one of elevated stature by virtue of decorations involving male-female collaboration. Notably, however, their tasks are different. Men are blacksmiths and carvers among the Igbo, while women are ceramic artists, weavers, and painters.