I recently travelled to Fort Worth, Texas, for a family get-together on my wife’s side. We took a morning to visit the Kimbell Art Museum. I was impressed with two African ceramic pieces in the collection, one from the Nok culture and the second from the Ife culture.
The Nok culture in what is now northern Nigeria flourished from about 500 BCE to 500 AD. Nok terracotta sculptures are some of the earliest known artistic expressions from the region. Nok terracotta sculptures show rounded, voluminous, stylized human forms. Experts also cite typical Nok sculptural features that include large triangular eyes with deep-set carved pupils. Elongated body elements alternate between smoothed surfaces and incised textures to denote hair, clothing and jewelry, as shown in the sculpture below entitled “Male Figure.”
Nok terracotta clay itself is quite rough. Yet Nok sculptors managed to smooth and add texture to surfaces with great effect.
Complex hairstyles are characteristic of Nok sculpture – especially the conical “buns.” Note the textured detailing.
I love the combination of smooth and textured surfaces built over a rounded, flowing architecture representing the human form. Just beautiful.
The Ife culture flourished in the 12th-14th centuries in what is now southwestern Nigeria. Most Ife art represents royal figures and Ife artists worked in both bronze and terracotta. The terracotta piece below (“Head, Possibly a King“) illustrates stunning skills at depicting a naturalistic human form. This is characteristic of Ife sculpture.
The Kimbell has a short audio recording describing this sculpture in more detail. I’ve added it below.
The back side of the sculpture shows the piece was built with coils of terracotta clay. The front surfaces were then smoothed and decorated with incised lines that highlights the fluid modeling of the face. Smooth lips and eyes are a striking contrast.
3D examples of Nok sculptural heads and Ife sculptural heads can be found on the Scantix website. (Scantix uses radiological processes to examine non-metal artworks (including archaeological terracotta from West Africa) for fraud verification and damage / repair assessment.)