Skip to main content

Carving and Sculpture

Carving and Sculpture


The Nok Culture. Flourishing between about 500 B.C.E. and 200 C.E. on the Benue plateau of present-day Nigeria, the ancient Nok culture produced some of the earliest examples of West African sculpture, terra-cotta figurines characterized by simple facial features and bulging eyes with pierced pupils. The art of these Iron Age people influenced evolving cultures north and south of the Niger-Benue confluence as well as east and west of the Niger and its delta area. Nok civilization is thus part of an extensive continuum that includes the Igbo-Ukwu, Ile-Ife (also called Ife), Owo, and Benin cultures, which developed after the year 500.

Metallurgy. According to Christopher Ehret, iron ore was in abundance at scattered sites throughout West Africa, and iron smelting had emerged independently within the region by the first millennium B.C.E. Ironworkers eventually became a protected class, or guild, who carefully guarded the knowledge of transforming iron ore into useful tools, ornaments, jewelry, and art. Ironwork also

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

contributed to improvements in agriculture and animal husbandry. In fact, the creative use of iron contributed greatly to the social, political, and economic well-being of West Africa. Ogun, the Yoruba deity of war and iron, is associated with hunters, warriors, carvers, and metalworkers. The earliest known examples of the related art of bronze casting date from around 900 C.E. They were made by the Igbo-Ukwu culture, located north of the Niger-Benue confluence. Bronze ceremonial objects dating from this era are known for their beauty and artistic sophistication. Like cloth weavers, bronze casters developed an iconography that communicated secular and sacred meanings. Like iron casters, bronze casters occupied an exalted sociocultural position.

“Lost Wax.” Bronze casters among the Igbo-Ukwu and other West African peoples used the cire-perdue, or lost-wax, process, which is still employed today. The artist first carves a figure in wax and encases it in a heat-proof substance such as clay, leaving holes at the top and bottom of the mold. The wax is “lost” when molten brass or bronze is poured into the mold, melting the wax, which flows out of the mold. When the molten metal cools and solidifies, the mold is broken, revealing the sculpture inside.

The Igbo-Ukwu Culture. In addition to the tenthcentury bronze objects, archaeological excavations at Igbo-Ukwu sites have uncovered other artifacts dating as far back as the ninth and tenth centuries. This culture made terra-cotta sculptures and copper items, as well as the intricately patterned bronze objects for which it is best known. The bronze and copper items may also indicate the significant wealth of Igbo-Ukwu and its rulers.

Ile-Ife. Art historian William Bascom notes that the bronze-casting techniques of Igbo-Ukwu are similar to those of a culture at Ile-Ife in southwestern Nigeria, which radiocarbon evidence places in about the same time period; yet, the two cultures have distinct artistic traditions. The bronze heads of classical Ile-Ife have a higher degree of naturalism than similar Igbo-Ukwu objects. Bronze and terra-cotta heads were made in Ile-Ife from the 1200s onward.

Benin. Beginning in the 1400s in the Kingdom of Benin in present-day western Nigeria, great artists produced high-quality bronze figures and heads. Only the obas (rulers) of Benin were allowed to own sculptures made of brass, and metalworkers were their servants. (Chief’S were permitted to own only ancestral figures

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

made from terra-cotta.) There can be little doubt that the art of metal casting in Benin was an indigenous development fueled by the need for life-like images of royalty to be used in funerary rituals and the cult of ancestors from whom the kings derived their power and authority. Benin art was thus predominantly royal, and it was so closely tied to the rituals used in the service of divine kingship that it underwent few modifications over the generations.

Bambara Woodcarving. The Bambara, who have lived along the Niger River since before the year 1000, are known for producing sculptures from wood as well as forged iron. Beautifully carved Chi Wara statues are among the best-known Bambara symbols. With intricately carved, elongated features they usually stand between twenty and twenty-six inches in height. The Chi Wara is a mythical antelope that taught people how to farm by using sticks to till the land. During ceremonies at planting and harvest times, dancers wear headpieces representing male and female Chi Wara, with the female carrying its offspring on its back. Symbolizing harmony and balance in human and natural life, Chi Wara are believed to bring fertility to the land. Stylistically mimicking the movements of both antelopes and farmers, Chi Wara dancers perform sacred (ritual) and secular (historical) rites that re-enforce their cultural bonds and spiritual perspectives. The creation of Chi Wara still rests within a guild of carvers who enjoy high status and are invested with ritual and social authority.

Akan Gold Weights. Nana Obunumankoma, who ruled the Akan state of Bono for more than sixty years during the fifteenth century, is credited with exploiting the state’s gold reserve and establishing gold dust as the local currency. He developed a system of weighing gold using standardized weights, which goldsmiths cast usually from bronze or copper by the cire-perdue method employed throughout West Africa. Gold weights served both economic and aesthetic purposes. As artistic expressions, gold weights were decorated with icons from Akan culture that conveyed cultural philosophy and values. Many of these images represented proverbs and maxims that reminded the users of the centrality of their culture in daily life. Like other metalworkers, goldsmiths were a privileged guild of master craftsmen. They were protected by the political leadership, and their works contributed to the creation of wealth in the state treasury. Goldsmiths and other metalworkers created staffs of authority and elaborate jewelry—including rings, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and anklets— for the ruling elite. They also made household utensils.


Rowland Abiodun, Henry J. Drewal, and John Pemberton III, eds., The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives onAfrican Arts (Washington & London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).

Akan Cultural Symbols Project <>.

E. V. Asihene, Apoo Festival (Tema, Ghana: Ghana Publishing, 1980).

William Bascom, African Art in Cultural Perspective: An Introduction (New York: Norton, 1973).

Benin Bronze Mask <>.

Christopher Ehret, The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002).

Angela Fagg, “Thoughts on Nok,” African Arts, no. 3 (July 1994): 79-84.

William Fagg, The Art of Western Africa: Sculpture and Tribal Masks (New York: New American Library, 1967).

François Neyt, with the assistance of Andrée Désirant, The Arts of the Benue: To the Roots of Tradition (N.p.: Editions Hawaiian Agronomics, 1985).

Ernest E. Obeng, Ancient Ashanti Chieftaincy (Tema, Ghana: Ghana Publishing, 1988).

Paul Radin and Elinore Marvel, eds., African Folktales & Sculpture, revised and enlarged edition (New York: Pantheon, 1964).

G. T. Stride and Caroline Ifeka, eds., Peoples and Empires of West Africa: West Africa in History 1000-1800 (London: Nelson, 1971).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Carving and Sculpture." World Eras. . 21 Jan. 2019 <>.

"Carving and Sculpture." World Eras. . (January 21, 2019).

"Carving and Sculpture." World Eras. . Retrieved January 21, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.