Until recently, most studies of Nigerian traditional arts were treated as part of a larger study, mainly in the form of historical surveys of African arts and culture. That Nigeria possesses her own traditional art forms and styles has been established even though she shares with the rest of Africa an art heritage with identifiable characteristics in such important concepts as motivations, pur poses and functions as well as visual and aesthetic interests.
Credited with most of the pioneer research in African traditional arts, the European and American scholars exhibited a common practice in their studies which were often confined to the visual arts, and primarily to sculpture which Fagg considered "the most characteristic and highly developed form of Negro aesthetic expression." He identified Nigeria as having the largest number of creative artists working in the fields of the visual, performing and lit erary arts. In addition, Fagg recognises Nigeria's pre-eminence in African art and observes that "in Nigeria alone can we discern the mainstream of artistic development through two millennia and more... it is to Nigeria that all the African nations must look as the principal trustee of the more durable fruits of the Negro artistic genius." As a result, many of Nigeria's great works of the past now adorn the world's major museums where they enjoy a place of honour among other world master pieces. These works have become part of the sum total of mankind's cultural heritage.
What was known about African traditional arts in informed European circles before the beginning of the twentieth century consisted of occasional 'curios' and museum pieces which included masks, bronzes, ivories and wooden statues. A study of these reveals that there are all degrees of image making from extreme "naturalism to extreme stylisalion as well as what Sweeney sums up as the basic language through which African traditional art must always speak to outsiders - its vitality of forms, its simplification without impoverishment, and above all, its uncompromising truth to materials.
The dichotomy which exists between art and crafts is of western European origin because in pre-colonial Africa such a dichotomy did not exist. For example, those works that were created in the pre colonial era and which were mainly inspired by traditional religion and attendant ceremonial and ritual practices were classified as 'arts' whereas, the ones that were made as functional objects were classified as 'crafts'. Consequently, the former is regarded in the western world as non-practical and of high aesthetic value while the latter are relegated to the background as 'minor' arts since they do not possess the same awe and hidden meanings that are the hallmark of great art. In traditional African soci eties, all the arts were created as functional objects and the craftsmen who created works in bronze, wood or terra-cotta and who would normally be classified as sculptors were no more important than the craftsmen who wove baskets, carved calabash es or made ports - they were all artists in their own right. Their arts flourished because of the vital roles they played in both the secular and religious life of the people.
Unlike contemporary art made for the personal and material benefit of tourists, collectors and other consumers, pre-colonial African art was made for important ceremonial occasions most of which were connected with births, puberty, marriage and death (rites of passage). The artist was required to pro vide appropriate artworks for such occasions and thus provided motivation for artistic creation. It is against this background that we shall proceed to examine and appreciate Nigerian art and crafts as well as its traditional architecture.
Nigerian Traditional Art
About a decade ago, Nigeria mounted a travelling art exhibition titled "Treasures of Ancient Nigeria," which loured the United States of America, Canada, Britain and some European countries for more than three years. Critics described the exhibition as the best and most comprehensive to come from Africa. The art works represented the vintage of Nigerian artistic expression, for included in the show, were the bold and imaginative Nok terra cottas, described as the oldest sculptures in Africa South of the Sahara, the bronze and terra cotta heads of lfe which represent a naturalism comparable to that of classical Greek sculpture, the famous heads, figurines and plaques from the foundries of the ancient city of Benin and the lgbo-Ukwu bronzes described as among the earliest bronze works created by Nigerian craftsmen.
The significance of Nigerian traditional arts was not revealed to the outside world until after the second World War when systematic study and analysis mostly by European and American scholars were undertaken. Prior to this and even though Nigeria's contact with Europe dates from the fifteenth century, very little was known about Nigeria's artistic heritage until 1897 when a British Punitive Expedition not only sacked the ancient city of Benin but also removed as 'War' booty several thousand art works, mostly in bronze, from the Oba's palace. These works, the first African art to be accorded world recognition, remain today the most famous of all African traditional sculptures. A recent writer high lights the dispersal of these works when he writes: "he last place to go if you want to see Benin art is Benin itself, very little of its is left in the city... if you want to see Benin art, you will have to travel from Leningrad to California... to the splendid mansion of a Swiss millionaire near Berne, to Copenhagen and Paris and New York... Nobody has ever estimated how much art was removed from Benin at various times; one estimate puts the number of bronze plaques and other ornaments removed from the Oba's palace in 1897 at 2,500." (Legum, 1960).
And in a foreword to a recent exhibition of Royal Benin Art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, de Montebello, while confirming that these sculptures were seen by outsiders for the first time in 1897, said that the "naturalism and royal imagery of these works were compared to masterpieces of Renaissance Europe and their technical sophistication and precious materials were much admired, earning Benin art a central place in European and American Museums" (Montebello, 1992).
The Nok terras:
Consisting of human and animal figures and believed to have been made between 500 BC and 200 AD are reputed to be the oldest sculptures in Africa, South of the Sahara. Like most other African traditional art forms, the Nok terra cottas were of religious and social signifi cance. Although considerable archaeological work remains to be done in order to establish the extent of Nok influence in other West African sculptures, it has been fairly established that the culture that pro duced the terra-cottas had a substantial influence in later sculptures that developed in West Africa and Nigeria in particular, the art of lfe, Benin and Owo have been cited as clear examples. The discovery of Nok art is important in the history of African art because it brought about a change in previously held view that the oldest African traditional sculp tures were only a few hundred years old. Identified by Bernard Fagg in 1943, the culture which produced this art has shed new light on the achieve ment of the people who are believed to have known how to work in iron, using indigenous technology, as revealed by large quantities of iron aitefacts. A study of the terra-cottas and associated artefacts indicates that the Nok culture is in many ways similar to that of the present inhabitants of the same area.
lfe art has been acknowledged as the most famous manifestation of naturalism in African art and so startled the Western world on its discovery at the early part of this century that the works were thought to be beyond the capabilities of Africans. In fact, the German explorer and ethnologist, Leo Frobenius, who carried out the first excavation at lle-ife (1910-12), thought that the bronzes and terra cottas were the works of itinerant European artists. This view remained current in European circles until the discovery of more terra cotta and bronze figures in lfe by other archaeolo gists which established beyond doubt that the lfe style was the peak of an earlier naturalistically inclined art form that flourished further north during the Nok culture.
The latest finds in this line of artistic achievements are the lgbo-Ukwu bronzes - (excavated by the archaeologist Thurston Shaw in the present Anambra State). Made up of bowls pots, staff heads and bracelets, the origin of these works is yet to be firmly established but what is certain is that they are among the earliest works created in bronze, having flourished between 600 and 1000 AD.
Less widely spread but still of great-significance are the sculptures in stone and wood such as the Ikorn monoleths and the famous Oron-Ekpu wood carvings.
Several other art styles of historical importance developed in various parts of Nigeria. Of these, a group of very sophisticated soap-stone figures, the single largest in Africa, was discovered at Esie in Kwara State. They are believed to be the works of Nupe people who still inhabit the area. Cordwell refers to them as exhibiting a "combination of naturalism and stylised proportioning" (Cordwell, 1959). and sharing some affinity with the art of Nok, lfe and Benin.
S. 1. Wangboje