The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Igbo Art in Social Context

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

Community shrine to the deities Udo and Ogwugwu (with the shrine's priest), Oba Uke, 1983. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.


Successful, powerful shrines, like this one, often contain numerous carved figures that represent the extended family of the main deities, plus one or more ikenga (the most evident of which is to the far left) and other protective, offensive, and defensive ritual materials. The wood images were carved by men, painted (and repainted annually) by women. They symbolize tutelary deities responsible for the general welfare and health of the community. Prayers and small sacrifices are offered on one of the four days of the week, with major sacrifices and a festival annually. Most such shrines were originally housed in fine, decorated buildings (like that in page eight) or in even more elaborate compounds that resemble those of titled men.

Most of these shrines, by the 1990s, had fallen into disuse, as the vast majority of Igbo people are now Christians. Indeed, most figures such as these have been purchased (occasionally stolen) from their originating communities, and are in private or public art collections in the United States or Europe, so their "function" has changed radically.

Many thousands of Igbo art objects left Nigeria during and in the immediate aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) during which the secession of Igbo-dominated Biafra, which declared itself an independent nation, was put down by Federal Nigerian military force.