Terracotta, also known as terra-cotta in Latin, which simply means ‘baked earth’, is a brownish-red material often used in ornamental architecture and sculpting or in making earthenware. The beauty of this medium is synonymous with its unique shades of brown and malleability. It has stood the test of time with a firm footing in the past, present and even in the foreseeable future.
The origin of terracotta can be traced back to prehistoric times. Venus of Dolby Vestonice, the oldest known terracotta sculpture in the world was found in 26,000 BCE-24,000 BCE. It was discovered under a layer of ash on a palaeolithic encampment in Moravia or the present-day Czech Republic. You'll find terracotta's presence in countries like China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and India.
An Enigma Called Nok
Traversing the trails and travails through time, it is with awe that I look at Africa, which looms in large as another remarkable destination of change for terracotta. I Googled it up and came across some thousand sources surrounding the enigmatic phrase ‘Nok Culture’. Some three or four images of terracotta head sculptures too captured my attention.
Discovered first in modern-day Nigeria by Colonel Dent Young in 1928, Nok sculptures are named after the village where they were found. An archaeologist, Bernard Fagg, later found more of these terracotta sculptures in the town of Jos in Northern Nigeria. These sculptures are believed to be from 1500 BCE-500 BCE. They feature human figures with long heads, almond-shaped eyes and elaborate hairstyles similar to those worn by some Nigerians even today. Many figures even portray common human emotions and experiences, including love, music, sickness and war. Not to mention, Fagg also found quite a lot of jewellery and utensils.
Though artists from the Iron Age mostly indulged in creating iron sculptures, terracotta earned popularity after the Nok people of western Nigeria began creating figurines out of clay. The Igbo culture of eastern Nigeria then followed the practice as it gradually spread across sub-Saharan Africa.
Clay that holds clues to the history
Essentially, the Nok sculptures encourage scholars to believe that an older tradition may have preceded the terracotta art in Nigeria. They also suggest a relationship to the later arts, such as the Ife terracotta sculptures of the Yoruba culture from 500 BCE. While evidence shows that the Nok sculptures were made for more than 500 years, their style remained consistent. This is strange as typically, stylistic changes are to be expected since it is a creative object that was being replicated by artisans across different generations.
Mystery behind the craft
In the absence of any evidence of a centralised workshop, the only conclusion is that these sculptures may have been made by wandering craftsmen. This sprinkles more enigma on the astonishing uniformity of these sculptures. Speculations lead us to believe that these sculptures were supplied across human settlements. These sculptures were perhaps images of a deity or they may have had a specific but now obsolete purpose. More space for curiosity, yes.
It is quite difficult to understand how and why these head sculptures were created. Based on hypothetical shreds of evidence, scholars and archaeologists of the 21st century continue to study them.
Production of Nok sculptures today
Scouring through the internet, I stumbled on an artist named Audu Washi from Jos in Nigeria, who makes perfect copies of Nok terracotta sculptures. He spends his time making Nok terracotta, which includes figurines of other styles such as Sokoto and Ife.
A peek into his method of making Nok figurines reveals a bigger picture of the original method, though with room for differences. He starts off by sourcing the clay from the Nok region, some 100 km from his village Miango, which according to Audu Washi has a ‘shine-shine’ to it. The clay is pre-treated by adding specific components, including ground stones from alluvial deposits, muscovite, and coarse feldspar fragments. The ingredients are then left in a dry plastic bag in a dampened state. Next, he models the clay figurine starting from its base. Audu Washi never starts with his head as parts above the bottom are placed step by step. He uses a multifunctional tool that could be far from the original tools used in the process: A 1-cm-thick wooden stick with a slanted point.
Using the pointed end of the stick, the artist presses it into the clay and smoothens out the surface. He then occasionally makes all kinds of incisions and grooves to create patterns on the clay. Washi adds that using iron tools such as a knife could be too sharp to create the soft contours on the figurines. It takes some two to three hours for Washi to finish one sculpture before it is sun-dried for four to five days. It is later baked at a temperature of 600-800 degrees centigrade. They take on a beautiful brownish-orange colour after the firing process. One thing to bear in mind now is that these sculptures may not be water-resistant unless glazed.
Terracotta in present-day Africa
In West Africa, pottery has been for social, utilitarian and religious purposes. Whereas in eastern Nigeria, terracotta or ceramic pots have been used as musical instruments among the Igbo, Ibibo and Kalabari communities. Before the advent of pipe-borne water and refrigerators, terracotta pots were used for cooling and storing water. Even now, in some societies, palm wine or local beer is brewed in huge pots buried halfway in holes dug in the ground.
In some cultures, such as the Dakakari in Northwestern Nigeria and the Akan in Ghana, pottery sculptures are used in rituals for the dead. They make terracotta heads that become the focal point during funerals, a tradition that is thought to be more than three centuries old. These terracotta heads, buried near the grave of the deceased, are considered a medium of exchange between the living and the dead. Similarly, among the Ashanti people in Ghana, sacred pots are used by the bereaved family.
The practice of using terracotta to make sculptures, and utensils etc. has continued into the 21st century, perhaps minus the passion and predestined purpose. Today, there are hundreds of Nok sites that face the threat of illegal excavation. You can find two of the ancient Nok sculptures at the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art.
Pottery, a gendered art in Africa?
Though the introduction of Western concepts of art and culture has affected contemporary African art, pottery as an art form has demonstrated resilience, synthesis and flexibility. Pottery, with few exceptions like Audu Washi, is made by women in traditional African societies and dominated by women. However, only a few scholars have considered women to be the creators of the figurative ceramic sculptures, including the Nok sculptures, discovered across the savanna. Due to the gender biases that often correlate men’s art as ‘high’ over women’s ‘low’ craft, men are conveniently presumed the creators of these works. Such production by women can construct new social and cultural meanings. But for some reason, it is hard to find names of women etched into the historical records related to Nok terracotta sculptures too. However, terracotta and ceramic arts are standard art subjects today to make them more accessible and laudable in the world of art.
Terracotta in Africa is synonymous with the Nok Culture that existed for some 500 years and mysteriously disappeared from the face of the planet. Archaeological readings suggest that the use of terracotta in Africa may have originated around the same time as the Iron Age. However, we also get a sneak-peek into the ancient life and practices of the Nok people.
Pottery in contemporary Africa today is thus one of the most practical of arts, that provides in concept and physically an excellent testament to the changes over time.