The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Igbo Art in Social Context

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

A medicine shrine comprised of a pottery vessel, with its priest and his wife and child. Amagu Izzi, 1982. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.


Established in the attempt to heal a sick child, this shrine achieved its original aim and became locally known for its healing powers. The operative portion of the shrine is the medicinal, herbal water in the sculptured vessel and the plants nearby. This vessel was commissioned from a female ceramic artist; the modeled figurative elements probably represent the nature spirits invoked by the shrine, those spirits responsible for both sickness in the first place and its healing—after appropriate prayer and sacrifice. The male executed mother and child woodcarving, provided by the priest or by a successful petitioner, commemorates the shrine's success. The feathers of fowls offered to the shrine's spirit(s) are attached to the figure with sacrificial blood.

The mother and child image, here and elsewhere among the Igbo, refers to the procreative and nurturing capacities of females and to the importance of having healthy children.