Igbo Art in Social Context

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

Interior of the mens' house, Obu Nkwa, "House of Images," Asaga Ohafia, 1983. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.


The most monumental Igbo figural sculptures are found in the mens' houses that double as shrines to the founding ancestors (and most important deities) of Eastern Igbo, Cross River, communities (Abam, Ohafia, Abiriba). This impressive structure, named a Nigerian national monument in the 1950s, houses twenty-two life size (or larger) figures. The founding ancestor is at the center of the hierarchical group to the left, with his massive first wife standing on his shoulders. The supporting cast of characters extends the notion of family to include several warriors, an old man, a girl carrying a water pot, a handcuffed criminal, a hunter, masquerader, court messenger, several women, and a white man. As a whole, the group forms a kind of microcosm of community life. Most figures line the walls of the large room, which is used as a meeting place for male elders and mens' society members who were the legislators, governors, and judges in pre-colonial times. The building was destroyed and the carvings looted, then exported, sometime during the 1970s.