The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Igbo Art in Social Context

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

A man with his own ikenga (right) and that of his father. Nnokwa, 1966. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.


Ikenga is a male altar or shrine dedicated to a person's right arm and hand, which are considered instrumental to his personal power and accomplishment. Married men throughout most of Igboland establish ikenga, normally ordered from a professional carver and consecrated with the blood of a fowl. Horns, as seen on both ikenga here, are their diagnostic attribute. Many feature a seated warrior holding a knife in the right hand and a trophy head in the left, symbols, respectively, of decisive action and success. Others, like the ikenga on the right, show a horned head above a geometric, spool like carving that stands for a body. The standing ikenga to the left is a variant of full figure, warrior versions; it includes the image of a turtle who in folktales is a crafty trickster and here, probably, a symbol of wisdom.

A man sacrifices and prays to his ikenga either daily or once every fourth day, as well as before any important or dangerous undertaking.

In some communities, life-size ikenga are (or were) collectively owned by men of young middle age, the warriors; these shrines were of course invoked prior to battle, and danced to (or chastised) after victory (or defeat). Overall, the ikenga exemplifies the male ethos of aggression and the importance of physical accomplishment and success—in yam farming and formerly in warfare—expectations of all able-bodied Igbo males.