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UNCOVERING IGBO ART : by Dr. Bridget Nwanze, University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria

Igbo people, also referred to as the Ibo or Ndi Igbo, are an ethnic group living chiefly in southeastern Nigeria and speak various igbo languages and dialects. Various attempts by people at uncovering the history of the Igbos have been made with emphasis on the recovery and preservation of the past as well as the analysis of recently collected data.  Worth mentioning in this regard is Olaudah Equiano (1794), who was about the first to provide written information on the politics, economy, life and culture of the Igbo, his people, as well as asking questions relating to their origin.  He proffered that they were the lost tribe of Israel.  Trained historians and amateurs have also upheld the same viewpoint.

Apart from Equiano, serious attempts to trace the origin of Igbos were made by Afigbo, Isichei, Dike, Onwujeogwu, Ogbalu, Emenanjo, and few others.  Pre colonialists and colonialists who lived in Igbo land also made scanty but useful reports.  Such foreign writers include John Adam (1823), Baike (1854), Major Leonard (1906), Northcote Thomas (1913), Talbot, (1926) and Jefreys (1934) .  They all saw Igbo land as very densely populated and difficult to administer.  Because they found most of the Igbo culture baffling and sometimes difficult to explain, they referred to them as the most primitive ethnic Nationality in Nigeria.  However, as a result of works done to solve different aspects of problems arising from colonialists’ denigration and defacement of African culture there has been a change in attitude,- a cultural re-awaking.

The richness of Igbo arts has attracted a good number of scholars from the pre-colonial times to the present day Nigeria.  Among these are Herbert Cole, who conducted an extensive study of Igbo arts in general and Chike Aniakor, who, alone, and sometimes with Cole or Udechukwu, expressed thoughts on various Igbo art subjects.  There were studies of some specific objects.  Such studies were conducted by Thurstan Shaw who carried out the archaeological rescue of Igbo-Ukwu, Simon Ottemberg, who, in his study of Afikpo masquerades, provided an insight into the relationship between forms and the worldview of their creators.  Other works on specific subjects are John Picton’s  on ‘Ekpeye masquerade’, Drewal’s3on ‘Mami Wata’, Hunderson and Umunna’s on ‘Ijele masks of Onitsha’ and Benton,, on Igbo and Ofo figures.

The creativity of the Igbo is also revealed in comments made on their terracotta arts.  Sylvia Leith Ross in her study of the Nigerian pottery remarked that Igbo women produced the best pots and were recognized more especially as regards their inexhaustible inventiveness in forms and decorations.  Cole and Aniakor also noted that there was great variety and inventiveness that could elevate the Igbo pottery to the level of fine art.

Igbo pottery was also highly rated by Fowowe who remarked that the essence of the great artistry in their pottery defied explanation in ordinary language.  According to him, the pots do not only serve functional purposes but also manifests the keen aesthetic sense of the potters.  Another attempt to understand pottery within the context of Igbo culture was made by Nwoga and Ugonna. They observed that Igbo art interprets and represents Igbo life vision that can be said to be multi-layered and multi-dimensional, an art that is interwoven with religion.  Their belief permeates every aspect of their culture and the objects used in their religious worship were non-verbal communication between them and their gods.  Most of such works are on the worldview of the Igbos in general.  Francis Arinze, in his study of Igbo shrine implements, says that the need to appreciate the unknown and the supernatural powers that operate outside the human circle, feature dominantly in the lives of the Igbo man.  To prevent hazards, there was a continuous devotion to sacrifice which he said ‘…is the soul of the Igbo cult.  He further observes that for proper sacrifice to take place there must be symbolic implements such as pots or carved wood representing the spirits.  In another observation, Udechukwu remarked that in order to create impact and focus for concentration in worship, Igbo artists resorted to fashioning symbolic anthropomorphic idioms, creating highly stylized male and female figures.
Demas Nwoko, discussing Mbari of the Owerri Igbo-speaking area, describes the images representing objects of worship as ‘very much the creation of an artistic mind trying to give body to the people’s prayers’. This is not far from the images used by the Catholics in the churches.  In his study, he also observes that the forms created, bridged the gap between spirits and their worshippers, creating some air of mysticism around the cult with the ultimate aim of giving a super-dramatic effect during religious worship.
Also, some anthropological and ethnographic studies have immensely advanced the knowledge of Igbo culture.  Such works include those of Angulu Onwuejeogwu who has carried out extensive anthropological and historical studies especially on Nri and other Igbo cultural areas, east of the Niger as well as Elizabeth Isichei and Afigbo who have focused on the history of Igbo people.  Notable also are some speculative and descriptive studies of Igbo culture particularly at the initial stage of the colonial era.  Worth mentioning in this regard are the works of G.T. Basden , a missionary, P. A. Talbot  and G. I. Jones  who were anthropologists cum colonial administrative officers.  More specific to the Igbo west of the Niger is the work of Okolugbo, who , in his study of the religion of the Aboh and Ukwuani Igbo, notes that the Igbo believed in the existence of a supreme God called Chukwu and also venerated ‘mmo’ spirit powers- some beneficent, others malevolent.  He further observes that it was in a bid to satisfy the spiritual yearnings of the people that such forms as anthropomorphic objects were crated.  So much importance is attached to various objects used in religious worship.
Of all the various studies mentioned, none has dealt with the Aniocha Igbo and it seemed that most of the scholars on Igbo culture were mainly concerned with the Igbo culture in the former eastern region of Nigeria.  Most of the works done especially on their arts and terracotta’s also focused on the Igbo artistic traditions east of the Niger.  Such areas like Igbo-Ukwu, Owerri, Nri, Afikpo, Awka and Aro which have contributed rich pottery, colorful masks, highly developed arts of wall decoration, delicate body paintings, weaving as well as smiting are the ones concentrated upon.  Much as these previous studies have illuminated the creative height of Igbo art and pottery, they usually failed to mention some existing Aniocha Igbo heritage. This is because the peculiarities of their culture are yet to be widely studied by anthropologists, ethnographers and historians.  As put by Onwuejeogwu, archaeological work is almost non-existent in the area. Researchers no doubt have a lot to unravel in Aniocha Art.

The Igbo in Nigeria speak different dialects and are found in Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, Imo, Delta and Rivers State. The Igbo language is predominant throughout these areas. Igbo art is generally known for various types of art especially terracotta outfits symbolizing people and animal conceptions.

Generally, the Igbo share a common basic culture which evolves like a branching tree and the ‘varieties today are like twigs sprouting from yester-years twigs’. It is most likely from such trees that other cultures sprouted.  In fact, of all the existing studies on Igbo art, very little is mentioned of the Igbos in the (Aniocha) southwestern zone.  Scholars of African art mainly concentrate on and even over emphasize the known and more popular mainstream Igbo arts.  There is apparently a lack of interest in peripheral aspects of Igbo culture area.

All these notwithstanding, the views of the various writers on Igbo arts have not been found totally irrelevant.  They demonstrate what could be done in order to understand the Aniocha Igbo culture and would certainly have helped towards a deeper knowledge and broader understanding of the Igbo arts as well as other aspects of Igbo culture.
Okolugbo, E. (1984)  A History of Christianity in Nigeria. The Ndiosimili and Ukwuani,  Ibadan, Daystar Press.    
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Olaudah, Equiano.(1794) The interacting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa . The African Norwich.
Afigbo, A. E. (!975) Towards a History of the Igbo speaking people of Nigeria, Ibadan Oxford University Press.
Isichei,    E. (1977) Igbo worlds, an Anthology of Oral Histories and Historical Descriptions. London: Macmillan Press.                                            
Onwuejeogwu,  M. A.(1981) An Igbo Civilization, Nri kingdom and Hegemony, Benin: Ethiopie Publishing Corporation.
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Emenanjo,   E. N. (1975)  Igbo Language and culture central Igbo, An Objective Appraisal Ibadan, Oxford University Press.
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Talbot,  P. A. ( 1926) Tribes of the Niger Delta,  London, Sheldon Press.
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Sadler, M.  (1935) . Arts of West Africa,  Oxford University Press.                              
Bentor, E.  (1988).  Life as an artistic process of Igbo Ikenga and Ofo. African Arts  Vol. XXI No. 2, 66..
Afigbo,   A. E. (1975) Towards a history of the Igbo speaking people of Nigeria,  Ibadan Oxford University Press.
Jones,  G. I.       (1984). The Art of Eastern Nigeria,  Cambridge University Press.      
Nwosu,  D. N.  ( 2009) . Yam Festival,  Evaluating the Igbo origin, Enugu,  The Potters Creations Ltd. | Contact Us | List Your Art | List Your Art Gallery | Site Map

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