My African Terracotta Workout Buddies.

I prefer my office cubicle to be clean, bare, and sterile. No family pictures, no degrees or certificates dressed to the nines in fancy molding or mummified laminations. The Madeba inspired reference to quotes from Invictus, and the Henry Thoreau quotes from ‘Walden’ will never again grace my workplace abode (long story, different blog).

At the mancave it’s just a little different. Here I need the complexity of tribal figures, and a cacophony of cultural rhythm and rhymes to pare the pace of my racing mind, and take the edge off the solitude that Netflix can’t totally eviscerate.

There are three components that help me stick to my daily ‘core’ workout routine.

The Oba corner bronze – this is my wake up latte – ‘no pain no gain’ inspiration mixed with delusional aspiration. There is something about Old Benin that seemed unfulfilled, yet had so much potential.


Benin – Bust of Young Oba

The living room Igbo Ikenga (aka the Kunin Ikenga) –  provides the stubborn motif, mixed with a slight taste of a ‘take no prisoners’ visual.

Kunin Ikenga

[E1] The Kunin Ikenga – from the collection of Myron Kunin

The African Terracotta are the most interesting – now the odd couple, but hopefully the audience will be expanded to three in the near future (don’t judge me).


Workout Buddies – African Terracota (Djenne)

The visage presented by my African Terracotta workout buddies is totally non-judgemental, and allows me to fall from lofty goals on occasion (like the ‘hot cross bun six pack’ vs the six pack abs I strive for). They’re like the quiet cheerleader squad sans short skirts, and frills. They recognize the grind of old age and just encourage me to keep it moving on a day to day basis.




Five Things one should know about Ikenga

What is Ikenga?

Ikenga is a ‘ritual object’ (commonly found in Igbo family shrines), which on an individual basis represents ‘masculine strength’ and the ‘ability to achieve one’s goals through one’s efforts’. [1]

Kunin Ikenga

[E1] The Kunin Ikenga – from the collection of Myron Kunin

Types of Ikenga

The Ikenga is in the image of a horned male figure made out of wood.

Ikenga - simple, abstract

[E2] Simple Ikenga form

• In its simplest form, it consists of only a cylindrical block and projecting “horns”. The horn symbolizes the aggressive, assertive, and powerful nature of the male animal.

Traditional Ikenga - AplusAfricanArt

[E3] Traditional Ikenga form

• The more elaborate type of Ikenga is a standing or seated male figure with a fully realized head and limbs which usually holds a machete in the right hand (hence “the cult of the right hand” – typically the hand of strength), and a severed head in the other.

Abstract Ikenga

[E4] Ikenga – Abstract

• The very abstract ikenga represents “characteristic ikenga features, such as a stool for the seat of authority and horns for vitality”. [2]

Understanding Ikenga.

To understand and “map” the eastern Ikenga concept to western thinking I use the following :
• Igbo religion incorporates the concept of an all-powerful creator God, Chikwu. (also called Chineke). [3],[4]
• Chi has been described as a sub-deity functioning as a personal, spiritual guide, (which sounds like a Christian adaptation to the “guardian angel” (mmuo) hypothesis). [3],[4]
• Each person has a chi that represents the personality essence that controls one’s destiny. [5]
• “Ikenga sculpture reflects the traits defined by the ikenga (the spirit element) that is an aspect of a constituent part of the chi”. [5]
• “The ikenga is the force that facilitates personal achievement and propels individuals to success”. [5]

What is the Origin of Ikenga?

Scholars are divided into two groups. The first relate Ikenga to the Egyptian “ram headed” influence as part of Igbo history, while the second and more plausible line believes that “that the Ikenga cult did not diffuse from anywhere into Igboland; at best, it is that part of the Igbo religious culture, epitomized in the spirit force and the powers of the guardian angels exemplified in Chi, and expressed in varied forms, which controlled the individual’s destiny and day-to-day affairs”. [1]

Where is Ikenga Used?

Ikenga is primarily used by the Igbo, however it is also used by the Igala to the north (called Okega), and by the “Benin and Delta groups, bordering western Niger Igbo groups, who call theirs Ikengobo, Ivri etc. The Oji, Orji, Ogilisi, and Okwe trees are special types of trees, believed to have spiritual potency, and appear to be the trees used in carving the Ikenga. However, the Akanta tree, which is a very hard wood and highly revered by carvers and medicine men across Igboland, was also used”. [1]

[1] The Ikenga, as Emblem of Greatness in the Cosmology of the Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria, Ihediwa Nkemjika Chimee
[5] A Companion to African Philosophy, (edited by Kwasi Wiredu), p421

[E1] In Pursuit of Beauty, Sotheby’s (NY), 11/11/14
[E2]-[E4] Private Collection (AplusAfricanArt)

The Fox, Grapes, and a Yoruba Horseman

I don’t know if anything hurts as much as having your heart set on grabbing a particular piece at an auction and then losing out. What makes it worse of course is being beaten down by an online entity while your’s truly is in the live audience. It’s the testosterone curse that seems to afflict men and women alike!!

Collecting Tribal African Art has opened up a new world of “tentative obsessions”, where I started with Dan and Fang masks, moved through Yoruba and Kuba, and currently I remain fixated on Igala and Izzi (Igbo) pieces. This is not to say that I’m not moved by the occasional bout of “ikenga” or “firespitter” weakness, but one learns to control (arguably) spend at some point.

E1 Ogbodo Enyi Mask, Izzi,  Nigeria

E1 Ogbodo Enyi Mask, Izzi, Nigeria

This “Ogbodo Enyi” is the mask I missed out on. From “Igbo Arts : Community and Culture” (1984) comes the following excerpt,

“The role of women in regard to Ogbodo Enyi has changed even more drastically in one area. In 1975 children of the Izzi village group Nkaliki began to die from illnesses attributed to unspecified “evil spirits”. Petitions presented to the community oracle, Uke, succeeded in dispelling these spirits, order between the human and supernatural realms was restored and the deaths stopped. However in return for its intercession and patronage, the oracle, in a dream to its priestess, made an extraordinary and unique request. Uke asked Nkaliki women to organize and dance Ogbodo Enyi in its honor. Now well established throughout Nkaliki, the women’s masquerade represents a complete departure from all known Igbo (and other Nigerian) masking traditions- traditions that dictate all such activities as exclusively male perogatives.”

E2 Yoruba Head Crest, Nigeria

E2 Yoruba Head Crest, Nigeria

Cue the Yoruba horseman. I absolutely had no intention of bidding on this piece, (especially since it was listed before the Ogbodo Enyi), but it is one of those pieces that show a well proportioned perspective that appealed to me. The problem is that if one does enough research, gets hung up on patinas enough, and clings to the altar of provenance, one is apt to miss out on appreciating certain pieces based on the simple criteria of their beauty or “presence”.

E1,E2 Photo Credits : Willis Henry Auctions, American Indian & Ethnographic Art Auction 052613

Ikenga Symbolism and Classification

The Igbo tribe (primarily inhabiting southeastern Nigeria), make up one of the largest and most influential ethnic groups in Nigeria, numbering approximately 46-49 million people. Due to the effects of migration and the Atlantic slave trade, there are descendant ethnic Igbo populations in countries such as Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, as well as outside Africa. Their exact population outside Africa is unknown, but today many African Americans and Afro Caribbeans are of Igbo descent.[1]

Ikenga Statue

For the person collecting African Tribal Art the Ikenga is a true find. The carving can be artistically abstract, represents a value system linked to societal advancement, but at the same time provides a physical manifestation of a supernatural link. The primary ideas behind an Ikenga carving are physical strength, determination, and will to succeed. Although typically used as a ritualized figure for Igbo men and groups, the symbolism of Ikenga has survived over the years to provide a cultural basis for components of a related value system, and connects historical with modern motifs of individual wealth, and capitalistic principles.

“The two ram horns means that the owner of the Ikenga must go ahead in his business with the stubbornness of a ram. The knife is his right hand means that he must cut down any obstacle on the way… Every Ikenga must be carved straight and rigid, because straightness is the sign of exactitude, and rigidity means perseverance.” (Onwuejeogwu 1972:92)

The notions of individual enterprise, determination, and achievement are the mainstay of Igbo personality:

“an essential aspect of ‘right and natural’ that talent should lead to enterprise, enterprise to promotion, and promotion to privilege”. (Basil Davidson 1969:25).

Four basic forms of carved Ikenga were identified,[2]

Ikenga forms 1 & 2

Fig 1.  This is the sculptured Ikenga object type.

Fig 2. The abstract Ikenga type with the body in cylindrical form.

Ikenga forms 3 & 4

Fig. 3  Another abstract Ikenga symbol form.

Fig. 4  This is a figure of a typical Ikenga symbol object belonging to the broad class of “less abstract and more humanistic type”. Note the sitting position of the human figure, the scarification marks (ichi) on the face, the matchet and the human skull in the right and left hands respectively.

[2] Ritual Enactment of Achievement: “Ikenga” Symbol in Igboland ; Ejizu, Christopher I., Paideuma, Bd. 37 (1991), pp 233-251.

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