Nigerian Art: 10 Iconic Art Pieces You Must See

The uniqueness of Nigerian art cannot be overemphasized and after centuries of artistic expression, the culture remains undiluted.

Over the years, generations of Nigerians, home and abroad have experienced art in different forms and it would be nothing but a wonder of the world to be able to view art from different times, side by side. Here we highlight some of the iconic Nigerian art pieces you must see.

1. Tutu by Ben Enwonwu

Tutu’ by Ben Enwonwu has to be the most iconic Nigerian paintings of the century. The painting rose to prominence again a few years ago when the original was discovered in a London home, decades after going missing. In an interview with BBC, accoladed author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminisced how in yesteryears, prints of the painting were hung on the walls of every middle-class family’s home in Eastern Nigeria.

Regarded as Africa’s Mona Lisa, the painting is a portrait of an Ife princess, Tutu. Ben Enwonwu was a master of the Arts and his work is known to celebrate blackness and African heritage. In 2018, the painting was reported to have been sold for £1.2m. Also in 2018, the prestigious painting was on display for all to see from far and wide at Art X Lagos.

2. Festac Mask

The Festac Mask accurately depicts Nigeria’s rich and diverse culture. With its origin traced down to the Old Benin Kingdom in Edo, Nigeria. The Benin Ivory mask sculpture of Queen Idia to precise, the artistic pieces known as the Festac Masks, showcase the wealth of the Nigerian people.

Though lost to the British during colonial squabbles, the mask was the symbol of the festival of Arts and Culture 1977 and was regarded as a symbol of Pan Africanism. Over the years, many of these masks have been replicated and it remains a prominent piece among sculptures and Nigerian artists as a whole.

3. Something Split and New by Njideka Ankinyuli Crosby

Njideka Akinyuli Crosby is a phenomenal artist known for her mixed media work. Some would call it hybrid art, using a mix of collage, painting, printing, drawing, and other media. Just like most of her work, ‘Something Split and New’ mimic domestic settings.

For this Brilliant piece, Njideka makes use of charcoal, pastel, acrylic, collage, colored pencils, and transfers on paper. It portrays what seems to be life post-colonial times and immigrant life. Human interaction is a common focus in her work.

4. Esiẹ Stone Images

The Esiẹ stone images are some of Nigeria’s greatest treasures. These magnificent stone sculptures rest in the Esiẹ Museum, Kwara State, which was established in 1945. Believed to have been sculpted between the 12th and 15th centuries, the stone images represent human beings.

With over one thousand tombstone images in the museum, it is arguably the largest soapstone image collection in the world. The museum also plays host to religious activities and annual celebrations.

5. Ankara Na-Nma by Clement Mmaduako Nwafor

Clement Mmaduako Nwafor is a self-taught painter who has etched his name with many paintings like Ankara Na-Nma. His medium of choice in these marvelous pieces is oil on canvas and sometimes incorporates pieces of fabric to make collages.

Clement is known for his portrait paintings of women, featuring a Nigerian hair tie known as Gele but with a twist. The hair tie worn by the women in his paintings are made of Ankara, a fabric is popularly worn across the nation. His paintings do justice to the beauty of the Nigerian women.

6. There Was A Time by Patrick Akpojoto

Patrick Akpojoto is a young contemporary artist whose technique is genius. His paintings and drawings feature real-life elements made up of irregular shapes and dimensions to form a bigger picture. His work forces you to look closer. His piece ‘There Was A Time’ lands him a spot on our list of iconic Nigerian art because the intricacies of the subject are magnificent.

In this piece, it is easy to identify bricks, nails, benches, a building, wall corners, however, a deeper look shows you a man, hunched over penning down words of his time. 

7. Wealth of Nation: Ogoini Nine by Victor Ehikhamenor

Victor Ehikhamenor is a renowned artist from Edo State, Nigeria. With artistry in his lineage, Victor’s family has covered the Oba of Benin and royal ceremonies for decades. Wealth of Nation: Ogoni Nine by Victor Ehikhamenor tells the story of Ogoni land, the source of the wealth of the Nigerian nation. Ogoni Nine refers to the nine brave activists from Ogoni Region, Nigeria, who opposed the Royal Dutch Shell oil corporation.

The members included outspoken author and playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa, Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine who were executed in 1995 by the military government at the time. The iconic piece carries a very important message, as it shows faces and struggles, for one thing, oil.

8. Nok Art

Nok Art refers to the artwork created by the Nok people, now present-day Kaduna State, the Nok art gives you a glimpse into the arts and culture of the Nok people. The art pieces were discovered in 1929 during archaeological excavations and its magnificence is undeniable.

The most prominent Nok art pieces are the terra-cotta figures and terra-wita heads. Terra-cotta in itself means baked clay. These artworks remain iconic because they hold the key to the knowledge of a group of people who existed in Nigeria before history as we know it.

9. PoloPlayers by Sam Ebohon

‘Polo Players’ by Sam Ebohon, is an iconic piece of Nigerian art that speaks to the eye of color. His fragmented painting style is unmatched with each stroke playing an important part. True to his own words, remove a stroke and it changes everything.

This work of art is iconic because it opens your mind to a whole new world. Looking at this painting by Sam Ebohon, a picture of Aristocrat Lagos comes to mind.

10. The Last Supper by Bruce Onobrakpeya

The Last Supper is truly a masterpiece. The printmaker, painter, and sculptor that is Bruce Onobrakpeya, literally cemented his name in art history with this piece.

Call it detailing at its finest, this piece is perfectly engraved in wood. Each part of the board tells a story and a message so divine as you inevitably interpret it in line with the biblical account of the last supper.

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