The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Igbo Art in Social Context

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

Shrine house for the god Eke, Uke, 1966. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.


Major shrines are located in the main plaza of a village. These buildings are set off from domestic compounds by both location and decoration. The structures and the adjacent cleared areas are the sites for annual festivals honoring and thanking the deities upon whom life is (or was) seen to depend. Eke is a god associated with a market, a cardinal direction, and one of the four days in the Igbo week. Like other tutelary deities, Eke is protective and healing, a guardian and a source of productivity in the fields, in animals, and in the human species. But if people neglect this god, he can bring his wrath down upon them in sickness, plagues of locusts or through other misfortunes.

The exterior walls were painted by women in an overall consistent uli style—comprised  of strong curves, swelling and tapering lines, and delicate abstract motifs. Uli patterns, whether on the body (see page one of this essay) or on clay walls, are all named, often for things of importance in the Igbo world. "Head of kola" refers to the nut shared out at all hospitality ceremonies, for example, while "cassava leaf" and "udara seed" reference valued foods while "the blood of a sacrificed chicken" has obvious ritual connotations. A large collection of uli designs would constitute a shorthand introduction to the Igbo world-view, even though the patterns are applied primarily for their striking visual effect rather than to convey overt messages.