Illustration principale
Female Nok head
Nok culture, Northern Nigeria, 500 BC-500 AD (TL tested)

Terracotta
Height : 19 cm

Provenance Private collection, Brussels
Galerie Simonis, Düsseldorf
Nok head fragments were once part of entire bodies and are the most renowned objects within the corpus known to date. These objects are so highly varied that it is likely they were modeled individually rather than cast from molds. Although terracottas are usually formed using additive techniques, many Nok pieces were sculpted subtractively in a manner similar to carving. This dis- tinctive approach suggests that a comparable wood-carving tradition may have influenced them. The heads of Nok terracottas are invariably proportionally large relative to the bodies, and while not enough is known of Nok culture to explain this apparent imbalance, it is interesting to note that a similar emphasis of the head in later African art traditions often signifies respect for intel- ligence.
Although every Nok head is unique, certain stylistic traits are found throughout the corpus of known work. Triangular eyes and perforated pupils, noses, mouths, and ears combine to depict men and women with bold, abstracted features. Perhaps the most striking aspects of Nok sculp- tures are the elaborately detailed hairstyles and jewelry that adorn many of the figures. The vari- ety, inventiveness, and beauty of their design is a beguiling record of cultivated devotion to body ornamentation. But as captivating as these embellishments are, the range of expression in Nok terracottas is far from limited to depictions of idealized health and beauty. Some pottery figures appear to depict subjects suffering from ailments such as elephantiasis and facial paralysis. These “diseased” visages may have been intended to protect against illness but, beyond conjecture, their meaning and the significance of Nok sculpture in general are still unknown.
Published on the cover of a catalogue edited by Nina and Henricus Simonis, this magnificient pe- tite head in pristine condition presents elegant and harmonious volumes. The elaborated bulbous coiffure shows a finely striated surface imitating hairlines, while the face displays perfectly what was perceived as the ideal of beauty in this culture.