Making Matter in Nigerian Art

Curated by Iheanyi Onwuegbucha, making matter explores materiality and technology in Nigerian art.

Pelican (1999) by Ben OsaweYemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Pan-Atlantic University

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In the beginning...

Artists across time and space have infused materials not only with ritual and symbolic significance but also social, political, and economic functions. In Africa, artists from all known records have expressed themselves in different forms using varieties of media and materials.

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A celebration of Africa

From the Stone Age to the earliest contact and the era of the explorers, evidences abound of the artistic potentials of Africa. Although an array of art materials is now available in Nigeria, many artists continue to explore the physical and textural qualities of local materials.

Adventure (I) (1997) by Bruce OnobrakpeyaYemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Pan-Atlantic University

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Using local materials

Nigerian artists have explored different materials available within their environment, mirroring the various social conditions and civilizations at that time. In addition to improvising with industrial materials, Nigerian artists like their ancestors seek out materials local to their environment and in response to their civilization.

NOK Head (Female) by UnknownOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

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Nok art and using clay

Terracotta produced with locally abundant clay has been used by Nigerian artists for centuries. Perhaps most famous is the artworks created by the people of the ancient kingdom of Nok (500BC).

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Typical of Nok sculptures, this figure has triangular eyes with holes, a mouth and hair parted into mounds. Triangles, circles and semicircles are typical. Geometric shapes are typical of African styled art. 

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The form at the base of the neck is made up of linear lines which give the effect of a necklace and the hair style depicts the female gender.

Untitled (1990) by El AnatsuiOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

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El Anatsui used of wood

This piece shows a classic creative experiment by El Anatsui. He normally cuts wood into panels with a chainsaw before he engraves it with signs and motifs. He then paints it in expressive colours. 

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The wooden panels have been rounded and smoothened in different shapes. The black engraved motifs are symbols of Uli art, which is an abstract style used by the Igbo artists of southeastern Nigeria. 

Portuguese Soldier (1700/1899) by UnknownOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

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Metal in Benin and Igbo Ukwu art

From ancient times in Nigerian art history, artists have engaged with materials found in their environment to express ideas and concepts. The bronze works from Ife, Benin and Igbo Ukwu give an immediate introduction to this material. Bronze an alloy of copper and zinc has been used extensively in Benin and Igbo Ukwu art traditions. 

Igbo-Ukwu Snail Vessel by Unknown ArtistYemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Pan-Atlantic University

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African bronze art

Igbo Ukwu bronze sculptures are known as one of the earliest production of bronze art in West Africa. Ife artists on the other hand used copper in making their artworks. These metals are worked through hammering, bending, twisting, and incising.

Cycle of Life (1980) by Nike Davies-OkundayeOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

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Weaving traditions

African artists are known for using beads and excelling in weaving, knitting, felting, stitching, crocheting and bonding. These materials and techniques represent their cultures and are important means of artistic expressions. 

Goje Player (2013) by Jimoh BuraimohYemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Pan-Atlantic University

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Beaded stories by Jimoh Buraimoh

Contemporary artist Jimoh Buraimoh have used beads to convey his ideas. He is one of the most recognized artists to have emerged from the Oshogbo Art workshops. He is best known for his remarkable bead works which appear painterly as he carefully blends in the hues of the beads in making pictorial representations.

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Stepping into the future

Artists have sought to improve the environment by using repurposed materials in expressing their ideas. With the global drive for conserving the environment and reducing waste, many artists have stepped on to the scene to help in this mission by “upcycling”. 

Digital Armour (2019) by Adeola BalogunOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

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Making matter in Nigerian art today

Upcycling in art involves transforming waste materials or unwanted products into works of art. Reducing the consumption of new raw materials can result in a reduction of energy usage, air pollution, water pollution and even greenhouse gas emissions. 

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