The Beauty of Igbo Ukwu Art

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Igbo-Ukwu art is one of Nigeria’s foremost and highly celebrated artistic discoveries and it represents
one of the examples of bronze casting in sub-Saharan Africa. The name “Igbo-Ukwu” is derived from
a town, Aguata, in the state of Anambra in the southeastern part of Nigeria. The town is regarded
as a great historical and cultural significance in Igbo land. And it is made up of seven villages, called
Obiuno, Ngo, Akukwa, Umudege, Ezihu, Ezigbo and Etiti.
Igbo-Ukwu artifacts were discovered in three archaeological sites nicknamed Igbo Isaiah, Igbo
Richard and Igbo Jonah. Of course the first, Igbo Isaiah, was named after the man, Isaiah Anozie,
who found these beautiful masterpieces while he was digging a well beside his house in 1938. And
after he surfaced these bronze casting, Anozie called on his neighbors and friends and gave them
any piece they wanted because he did not know the value attached to his artistic findings. It took
the intervention of the District Officer many months later after he heard of the discovered bronze
work, who bought most of the findings back; he later handed over the artifacts to the Nigerian
department of antiquity. But five bronze artifacts from the original excavation are now in the British
Museum’s collection. They include a small staff, ahead of a ram, large manila, an intricately
designed crescent-shaped vessel and a small pendant in the shape of a tribal chief’s head with
tattoo marks on the face.
In 1959 two other sites were discovered, Igbo Richard and Igbo Jonah, through excavations led by
the archaeologist Thurstan Shaw and by the request of the federal government of Nigeria. In which
they dug up hundreds of ritual vessels and regalia castings of bronze that are among the most
inventive and technically accomplished bronzes ever made. One would deem the remains of
ancient culture, some with evidence of a distance trading system with Egypt. These three sites were
associated with a shrine (Igbo Isaiah), a burial chamber (Igbo Richard), and a cache (Igbo Jonah).
These discovered artifacts dated back to the 9th century with the use of the Radiocarbon dating
technique, which would make the Igbo-Ukwu art the earliest known example of bronze casting in
the region. This discovery had bronze castings that were manufactured centuries before the
emergence of the popular bronze centers like Benin and Ife. The artifacts include various ritual
vessels, crowns, breastplates, staff ornaments, vases covered in a stylized woven net, made with lost
wax technique. The sites display a lot of attractions that would give anyone who visits the area a
detailed insight into what the Igbo Ukwu people (and Igbo in general) were known for. One
important fact to note about Igbo Ukwu bronze culture is that it is found in all the migration routes
of the Igbos in every part of Nigeria. The people of Igbo-Ukwu, ancestors of present-day Igbo, were
the earliest smithers of copper and its alloys in West Africa, working the metal through hammering,
bending, twisting, and incising. They are likely among the earliest groups of West Africans to employ
the lost-wax casting techniques in the production of bronze sculptures. Oddly, evidence suggests
that their metalworking repertory was limited and Igbo smiths were not familiar with techniques
such as raising, soldering, riveting, and wire making, though these techniques were used elsewhere
on the continent.
The Igbo-Ukwu bronzes amazed the world with a very high level of technical and artistic proficiency
and sophistication which was at this time distinctly more advanced than bronze casting in Europe.
Peter Garlake compares the Igbo-Ukwu bronzes “to the finest jewelry of rococo Europe or of Carl
Faberge,” and Frank Willett says that the Igbo-Ukwu bronzes portray a standard that is comparable
to that established by Benvenuto Cellini five hundred years later in Europe. The high technical
proficiency and lack of known prototypes of the Igbo-Ukwu bronzes led to initial speculation in the
academic community that they must have been created after European contact and phantom
voyagers were postulated. However, research and isotope analysis have established that the source
of the metals is of local origin and radiocarbon dating has confirmed a 9th-century date, long
before the earliest contact with Europe. The Igbo-Ukwu artifacts did away with the hitherto existing
colonial-era opinions in archeological circles that such magnificent works of art and technical
proficiency could only originate in areas with contact to Europe, or that they could not be crafted in
an egalitarian society such as that of the Igbo.

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