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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Nok, Katsina, Sokoto : Nok Terracotta Sculpture of a Woman
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Nok Terracotta Sculpture of a Woman - CK.0262 (LSO)
Origin: Nigeria
Circa: 200 BC to 200 AD
Dimensions: 18" (45.7cm) high x 4.5" (11.4cm) wide
Collection: African Art
Medium: Terracotta


Location: United States
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Description
This spectacular piece is a Nok masterwork, and one of the finest such pieces that we have seen. It represents a standing female figure with a trunk-like body, truncated at the waist at what appears to have been a knop or finial to a large ceramic vessel. The torso is decorated with a strap running around the shoulders, and a central diadem hanging to the mid-abdomen. The breasts protrude from under the strap, their shape indicating that it perhaps represents an older, mature woman of childbearing years. The neck is long and broad, ending in an exquisitely-rendered face with a chiselled jawline, elongated features, a high, bare forehead, simple hair in a rigid short style and the traditional triangular eyes with lowered lids and pierced pupils. Condition is excellent; the clay is very hard-fired and, as will be seen below, unrestored.

The astonishing artistry and early date of Nok pieces makes them among the most important artworks on the African continent. Comparatively little is known of the Nok culture, although the entity – which flourished between 900 BC and 200 AD – is technically a misnomer, for the artistic traditions it represents are the only common characteristics shared by communities that differed in most other respects. Their artworks constitute the most sophisticated and formalised early African artistic tradition outside Egypt. Technically, they are very unusual because of the manner in which coiled and subtractive sculpting methods were used to capture likenesses. Aesthetically, they are both naturalistic and expressionist, with highly distinctive elongated forms, triangular eyes, pierced pupils/nostrils and elaborate hairstyles. Substyles of the Nok tradition include the Jemaa Style, the Katsina Ala Style (elongated heads) and the Sokoto Style (elongated monobrow foreheads, lending a severe expression to the face) and random variants such as the Herm Statues of Kuchamfa (simplified cylindrical figures topped with normal heads) and the “standard” three-dimensional standing figures, which subscribe to the Jemaa style. It is to the Katsina Ala group that the current piece can be attributed.

The function of Nok art is unclear, although the care with which it is executed has led some to claim they represent nobility, or perhaps ancestors to which obeisance and sacrifices were offered. The largest ones may have been placed in structures that had ceremonial or ritual importance at the time, while smaller ones may have been personal or domestic talismans or deities/spirits. They are always socially elevated insofar as this can be ascertained (i.e. jewellery, weaponry) although the lack of context makes this speculative at best.

The popularity of Nok works has led to extensive reproduction of their better works. This can take various routes. Firstly, one may produce a completely manufactured fake that emulates traditional designs. The other is a to collate several severely damaged ancient statues and fragments into a “restored” external shape that tests authentic when assessed using radiometric dating techniques. In the current case, the piece was first assessed by Barakat Gallery African art specialists for its stylistic and use-wear characters. Having been approved, it was then submitted for radiometric testing. It was sampled in various locales and has produced consistent results in all of them; the piece is known to date to 1900 BP +/- 10% = 140 BC to 240 AD. This is a firm and authenticated date, and this adds historical certainty to what is stylistically a rarely-bettered piece of ancient Nok art.

- (CK.0262 (LSO))

 

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