Nok Sculpture (Africa) as Oldest Sculptures in Black Africa

The Nok culture originated in a valley in West Africa between the Niger and the Benve Rivers about five or more centuries before Christ. They have produced the oldest sculptures in black Africa. Although the culture died out around 200 AD, they continue to influence other West African cultures and art traditions.

Nok sculptures were made of terra cotta or fired clay. Many of the sculptures found are only of heads. It is possible that these heads were once on full figures, presumably destroyed by erosion. These sculptures were often life size, possibly resembling a worshipped individual. The terra cotta or earthenware sizes range from one inch to life size. The human sculptures are stylized, while animal figures are naturalistic; showing that the producers of these magnificent pieces took pride in their work by taking their time.

As with this head figure, many of the Nok culture's heads are elongated. This head starts from an ornament on the top to just beneath the chin. The lips of the mouth are full, and when together, resemble an oval. There is a small, oval hole in the center of the mouth. Not far above the mouth is a nose in the shape of a triangle. The eyes are large, up-side-down triangles with a circular hole in the center of each. Above the eyes are long, thin, and arched eyebrows. This figure has an extremely long forehead with an ornament on the top. There are no visible lines to represent hair, nor are there any forms to resemble a head ornament such as a hat or crown.

Scholars do not know what function these sculptures had in the Nok society. Based on what we know, that African art has traditionally had a socially-useful function, we are able to form an hypothesis on their uses. It is known that they worshipped ancestors and had many gods. The elaborately detailed figures could represent a god, or a highly prized ancestor, while plain figures could represent a lesser individual; showing social status.