Published: November 6, 2015
CLEVELAND, OHIO — Recent acquisitions by the Cleveland Museum of Art include an Ikenga figure, a prime example of Igbo art from Nigeria; “The Temple of Edfu: The Door of the Pylon,” a sketch of an Egyptian temple by English watercolorist John Frederick Lewis; and “Hans Haacke with Sculpture,” a 2005 assemblage by sculptor Rachel Harrison.
Lois Conner, who has photographed regularly throughout China since 1984, donated “Zelan Tang, Yuanming Yuan (Pavilion for Nurturing Orchids, Garden Of Extended Spring),” 2004, in memory of Mark Schwartz, a longtime friend and generous supporter of both the artist and the museum’s photography collection and program, who died in 2014.
The Igbo constitute the largest ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria and their arts are among the country’s most varied and complex. The figure is a key example of an Igbo sculptural genre called ikenga. It depicts a man seated on a one-legged stool, holding a cutlass in one hand and a human skull turned upside down in the other. The ikenga would have been part of a shrine, where it would have received prayers and sacrifices in return for the ancestors’ support and guidance.
The figure wears an elaborate headdress comprised of two curving, interconnected horn-like extensions, with three projecting cone shapes on either side of the face. The horns, perhaps those of a ram, underline the male gender of the image. The figure’s forehead and temples are graced with parallel incisions imitating local scarification patterns known as ichi. The ichi scars signal that the sculpture represents a high-ranking member of one of the many Igbo male associations. The white color around the eyes, derived from chalk, signifies purity and protection, and refers to the benevolence of the spirits.
The ikenga figure is an important addition to the museum’s Nigerian holdings. It also adds a sculptural genre with widespread cultural connections, as it was shared by various different peoples across a vast geographic region.
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