Ikenga: African Art of Individuality and Achievement

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston holds a collection of African Art that is mainly paying attention on masks, sculptures, objects of everyday use and aesthetic adornment. “It contains representative examples of many of the major art traditions of West and Central Africa.” Most of the items in the collection are carved and impressed on wood. Wood is seen as a material that allows for a broad spectrum of expression in both the execution of the art work and the aesthetic and artistic interpretation (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, “Ikenga,” http://www.mfa.org).

One of the pieces on the African Art collection is the Ikenga. Located in the Richard B. Carter Gallery, this sculpture was a gift of William and Bertha Teel to the Museum of Fine Arts in 1994. Ikenga literally translates to ‘male figure.’ It is a wood carving with pigment with a height of 109.22cm and is estimated to be about 100 years old. The sculpture was done by Oroma Etiti Anam, a Nigerian from the Aguleri-Nteje region and is part of the Igbo ethnic group (Ibid).

The Ikenga is a relatively tall image of a man carved in light-colored wood seated in a stool with legs firmly planted on the ground. On his right hand, he carries a dagger and on his left, a curved object that rests on his left shoulder. He wears a short grass skirt that exposes his knees, penis, and buttocks. He also wears a large and elaborate headdress consist made of animal heads and antlers characterized by big open loops. The face of the Ikenga is a solemn one neither showing any emotion. Its most prominent facial feature is its broad lips that are characteristics of early African people. The details on its head and forehead matched by the elaborate head piece and dagger suggest that the figure depicts a warrior or an ethnic leader (ibid).


Cultural and Historical Background

In the southern part of Nigeria, the Igbo people and culture stresses the importance of individuality through success and achievements. This is what the Ikenga figure represents. Ikenga could be translated to mean ‘power in the right hand’ to refer to the era wherein men of the Igbo communities were heavily engaging themselves in warfare with neighboring ethnic groups. Thus, Most Ikenga figure, if not all, is depicted holding a dagger in its right hand. In relation to warfare, it is easily assumed that Ikenga are sacred object of the men of the Igbo people. Ikenga figures are placed by men in the hut where they sleep or in altars on their communal and meeting houses as a sacred and ritual object.

Male carvers are in charge of making Ikenga. The process involves the use of adze to carve out the general pattern of a man holding a dagger on his right hand. And then with the use of a chisel, the carver would create patterns such as details of elaborate headdress, facial expression, and other details that are conceptualized by the artisan. Ikenga are also made of wood material. Wood is related to masculinity and symbolizes male status and power. “The parallel line marks on the forehead of the sculpture are referred to as ichi, the Igbo word for head. Traditionally, this form of scarification would have been applied to the forehead of Igbo men to signify their rank as titleholders. The pipe the ikenga is smoking and his ram’s horns also represent masculinity as well as age and physical prowess. For the Igbo people, masculinity is not embodied physically, but rather through symbols which stand for achievement within the male social sphere” (Shufelt, “Africa Embodied. Language of Adornment”)


An ikenga figure from the Hamill Gallery in Boston.
An ikenga figure from the Hamill Gallery in Boston.

Symbolism

Ikenga is no doubt transcends beyond its ritualistic symbolism but is a representation of traditional male leadership and power among the Igbo people. It depicts how men are expected to strive hard to achieve rank and power and thus receive a high title in the community. It also is a visual portrait of authority or leadership. This means the ability to ‘sit’ in judgment and the capacity to be a warrior and chief at the same time. In this sense, the stool is also an important factor in the Ikenga carving because it symbolizes or represents the title associated with elite men ‘seated’ in judgment or in important ceremonies. Thus, Ikenga are always represented as a figure sitting on a stool (Shufelt, “Africa Embodied. Language of Adornment” and Artheos, “Ikenga Figure”).

Another important dimension of the Ikenga wood carvings are the horns usually considered being that of a ram. Ram for the Igbo people is a symbolism of aggressiveness, perseverance and restrained when required—characteristics of a ram that equates to power and wisdom that a warrior chief must possess (Artheos, “Ikenga Figure”).

As a sacred ritual object, Ikenga are given offerings usually in the form of farm produce to appease the yam deity ifejioku. Prayers are also offered to the Ikenga for physical strength and power when engaging into war to commune with obo and aka nri. For elite warriors, Ikenga means personal determination. This concept actually transcends from the ancient belief to our post modern age as Igbo young men would still petition to the Ikenga their desire and determination to pursue college (Ibid). The importance of Ikenga figures transcends time and culture. With the advent of modernity, it is still amazing how tradition and modern scientific belief could be fused together and still retain the sanctity of ancient ritual object that still holds meaning to the Igbo people and the world.


References

Etiti Anam, Oroma. Ikenga. 1910. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Richard B. Carter Gallery. Web. 01 March 2010.

Shufelt, Lani. Language of Adornment. 2002. Africa Embodied. Web. 01 March 2010.

Artheos. Ikenga Figure. N.d. Artheos.org. Web. 01 March 2010.


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