Nok sculpture, Head, Terracotta, first millennium BC. Goethe-Universität Frankfurt. Photo: Barbara Voss und Monika Heckner. Site of discovery: Kushe. Image courtesy of Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung
FRANKFURT, GERMANY- Nok: Origin of African Sculpture, a special exhibition at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, focused on Nok sculptures and terracotta has become a major point of debate among academics and art scholars. Besides the contentious curatorial slant, the exhibition has also rekindled the debate about treasures looted from Africa by thieves who plundered archaeological sites. Encouraged by dubious art dealers who organize illegal searches and the plundering of archaeological sites, these thieves are relentless in their looting of items of cultural values. Many of the treasures looted by these illicit treasure hunters often end up in the Western art market, where they are sold to the highest bidders.
Nok terracotta sculptures are some of the treasures that have fallen victims of these robbers. With the increase in demand for African art and top prices achieved by Nok terracotta figures, the thieves have continued to deprive the Nok people and Nigerians of precious historical artifacts.
The discovery of the Nok sculptures in the 1940s drew the attention of Bernard Fagg, a British archaeologist, who began assembling more of them. By the late 1970s, Fagg, assisted by miners, had assembled more than 150 fragments of Nok terracotta figures. Named after Nok, a little village located near the site of the first discovery, the Nok terracotta figures rank among the earliest and best examples of African sculpture. Since it was discovered by accident during tin mining in the 1940s, Nok sculptures have continued to gain prominence because of their distinct characteristics. In addition to stylized representations of animals and human beings with triangular eyes whose pupils are suggested by indentations, some terracotta figures have headdresses and hairstyle that are elaborate and detailed.
Curated by Prof. Dr. Vinzenz Brinkmann (Head of the Collection of Antiquities, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung), the Nok terracotta sculptures that are part of Nok. Origin of African Sculpture are been presented to the public for the first time. The exhibition is the result of a joint effort between Frankfurt’s Goethe University and the Liebieghaus. Many of the works presented were discovered in more than two-hundred excavation sites in Nigeria within the past eight years.
Nok. Origin of African Sculpture features over one hundred sculptures and fragments recovered by the archaeologists of Frankfurt’s Goethe University. Very few Nok terracotta sculptures have been found intact. In fact, records show that only a single complete figure has been excavated to date. Made from coarse-grained clay covered with slip, many of the Nok terracotta sculptures are fragile, and have not been able to withstand the test of time.
Derelict as some of the pieces are, however, they have been very revealing of the outstanding ability of the Nok craftsmen and women. While there are images of animals such as snakes and lizards, human beings are the main subjects for the Nok sculptures. In some instances, human figures are combined with animals to attain mythical credence. Although it is uncertain what this hybrid creature of man and animal known as chimeras were used for, they seem to reflect the relationship between man and spirits or god.
What many of the broken excavated terracotta figures on display at Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung were used for was not clear from this exhibition. Scholarly research, however, suggests that they were used for rituals, including ancestral worship, harvest rituals and healing practices. Even that is inconclusive. Decades after they were first discovered, researchers continue to make great strides in their effort to piece together information about the Nok people and their culture. Some of the works in this exhibition provide a number of insights. One relief, for example, shows a man beating the drum on which he sits. This piece is very significant as it provides the oldest evidence of music in Sub-Saharan Africa. Other pieces with extravagant hairstyles or headdresses, beards and jewelry seem to suggest that the Nok people had a great sense of style and fashion.
Installed alongside about sixty artworks from Egypt in Late Antiquity and Classical Greece that date from the same period, the show attempts to force a dialogue by drawing a parallel between Nok terracotta sculptures and the art of contemporary cultures around the Mediterranean. This curatorial approach of presenting Nok terracotta sculptures alongside Egypt in Late Antiquity and Classical Greece that date from the same period, in an effort to engender a dialogue has engendered some contentious debate among art scholars and curators.
Several scholars have argued that the presentation takes away from the attention needed for studying and understanding the Nok terracotta sculpture. Some curators also contend that an educational program like the research results from the excavations carried out by a team of archaeologists from Frankfurt’s Goethe University around Prof. Dr. Peter Breunig in Nigeria since 2005 presented alongside the exhibit should have been used for the purpose of drawing the comparison.
Nok. Origin of African Sculpture is an important exhibition not just because of the works presented, but also because of the issues raised. Besides the illegal plundering and sale of looted Nok treasures, the exhibition also brings attention to art forgery. In the last decade, many museums and art collectors have been realizing that some of the Nok sculptures they considered original are actually forgeries or copies. This has caused major uproar in art circles as some museums and collectors are asking for a refund because they feel duped. While many the Nok sculptures and terracotta pots presented in Frankfurt exhibition are genuine beyond any doubt, the presentation of original Nok sculpture alongside forgeries successfully brings attention to the illicit trade in the art market, and looters who continue to plunder archeological sites across the globe.
Additionally, the show has rekindled issues of treasures forcefully removed from their location by colonialists, who have kept them in their museums. Although some of these institutions have been quick to return looted treasures to Western nations, there have been exceptions when it comes to Africa. The disparity in the return of looted treasures, some Western institutions have argued, is because if these looted treasures were returned, they would be stolen and resold into the underground art market where they will disappear forever. This argument has not dissuaded many African countries who continue to request the return of looted treasures. The exhibition Nok. Origin of African Sculpture in the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung was realized in collaboration with Frankfurt’s Goethe University and supported through loans from the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria. After having been presented to the public in the Liebieghaus for the first time, the sensational finds with their outstanding free forms will return to Nigeria to be shown there.