The art of Nigeria

From the Kingdom of Benin to the arts of the Yoruba, Nigeria is home to ancient and vibrant art traditions.

c. 15th century–present

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What is the art of Nigeria?

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“Mami Wata” figure, Igbo artist
“Mami Wata” figure, Igbo artist

This large sculpture was made for Mami Wata, pidgin English for “Mother of Water," a charismatic being of great spiritual power celebrated in West and Central Africa and reimagined as deities such as La Sirene (Haitian Vodou) and Yemanjá (Candomblé and Umbanda) in Afro-Atlantic spiritual traditions.

Janus-Faced Headdress (Ejagham or Bale peoples)
Janus-Faced Headdress (Ejagham or Bale peoples)

This exceptional mask has a solid wooden core carved with two similar faces in opposing directions, often referred to as a Janus face.

Ikenga (Igbo peoples)
Ikenga (Igbo peoples)

These carved wooden figures have human faces but animal attributes, and reflected the achievements of their owners.

Head of a ruler, Ife
Head of a ruler, Ife

This brass head clearly portrays a person of status and authority, possibly a king (ooni) of Ife

Yorùbá artist, pair of twin figures (Ère Ìbejì)
Yorùbá artist, pair of twin figures (Ère Ìbejì)

Twin figures known as Ère Ìbejì reveal how a Yorùbá mother navigates the loss of twins

Benin Art: Patrons, Artists and Current Controversies
Benin Art: Patrons, Artists and Current Controversies

Royal patrons, artists, and power in the Kingdom of Benin.

The Imagery of Power on Benin Bronze Plaques
The Imagery of Power on Benin Bronze Plaques

The audience hall in the palace in Benin City communicated to visiting ambassadors, traders, courtiers, and subjects the power and wealth of the Oba, or king.

Olowe of Ise, Veranda Post of Enthroned King and Senior Wife
Olowe of Ise, Veranda Post of Enthroned King and Senior Wife

The convention of elongating the figure can be seen in many of Olowe’s carvings, to visually highlight the importance of the head that holds the inner spiritual power, dignity and strength, and sacredness of one’s destiny.

Benin Plaques
Benin Plaques

How to impress your courtiers: a lesson from the Kingdom of Benin

Benin ivory mask (Edo peoples)
Benin ivory mask (Edo peoples)

This mask depicts the king’s mother, whose ruthless political prowess ensured that her son became king.

Ere Ibeji Figures (Yoruba peoples)
Ere Ibeji Figures (Yoruba peoples)

The high rate of twining among the Yoruba peoples gave birth to a genre of spiritual objects for mourning parents.

Queen Mother Pendant Mask (Iyoba) (Edo peoples)
Queen Mother Pendant Mask (Iyoba) (Edo peoples)

This intricate ivory mask symbolizes the king’s dual nature as human and divine—and honors his mother.

Selected Contributors