Nigeria, officially the Federal Republic of Nigeria, is a federal constitutional republic comprising 36 states and its Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The country is located in West Africa and shares land borders with the Republic of Benin in the west, Chad and Cameroon in the east, and Niger in the north. Its coast in the south lies on the Gulf of Guinea on the Atlantic Ocean. There are over 500 ethnic groups in Nigeria, of which the three largest are the Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba.
The name Nigeria was taken from the Niger River running through the country. This name was coined by Flora Shaw, who later married Baron Lugard, a British colonial administrator, in the late 19th century. The British colonised Nigeria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, setting up administrative structures and law while recognizing traditional chiefs. Nigeria became independent in 1960. Several years later, it had civil war as Biafra tried to establish independence. Military governments in times of crisis have alternated with democratically elected governments.
Nigeria, known as “the Giant of Africa”, is the most populous country in Africa and the seventh most populous country in the world. Nigeria is roughly divided in half between Christians, who mostly live in the South and central parts of the country, and Muslims, concentrated mostly in the north. A minority of the population practice traditional and local religions, including the Igbo and Yoruba religions. Its oil reserves have brought great revenues to the country. It is listed among the “Next Eleven” economies. Nigeria is a member of both the Commonwealth of Nations, and the African Union.
What was known about African traditional arts in informed European circles before the beginning of the twentieth century consisted of occasional ‘curios’ and museum pieces which included masks, bronzes, ivories and wooden statues. A study of these reveals that there are all degrees of image making from extreme “naturalism to extreme stylization as well as what Sweeney sums up as the basic language through which African traditional art must always speak to outsiders – its vitality of forms, its simplification without impoverishment, and above all, its uncompromising truth to materials.
The dichotomy which exists between art and crafts is of western European origin because in pre-colonial Africa such a dichotomy did not exist. For example, those works that were created in the pre colonial era and which were mainly inspired by traditional religion and attendant ceremonial and ritual practices were classified as ‘arts’ whereas, the ones that were made as functional objects were classified as ‘crafts’. Consequently, the former is regarded in the western world as non-practical and of high aesthetic value while the latter are relegated to the background as ‘minor’ arts since they do not possess the same awe and hidden meanings that are the hallmark of great art. In traditional African soci eties, all the arts were created as functional objects and the craftsmen who created works in bronze, wood or terra-cotta and who would normally be classified as sculptors were no more important than the craftsmen who wove baskets, carved calabash es or made ports – they were all artists in their own right. Their arts flourished because of the vital roles they played in both the secular and religious life of the people.
Unlike contemporary art made for the personal and material benefit of tourists, collectors and other consumers, pre-colonial African art was made for important ceremonial occasions most of which were connected with births, puberty, marriage and death (rites of passage). The artist was required to pro vide appropriate artworks for such occasions and thus provided motivation for artistic creation. It is against this background that we shall proceed to examine and appreciate Nigerian art and crafts as well as its traditional architecture.
View Larger Map