NIGERIAN ART: The Endangered Species

– By Oluwatosin Giwa


The Nok culture appeared in North-central Nigeria off the edge of the Jos plateau around 1000 BC and mysteriously vanished around 500 AD. They were innovative iron smelters, but the Nok culture is best known today for its Nok and associated Katsina and Sokoto terracotta figures.  The culture is thought to have been highly advanced and considered to be the earliest sub-Saharan producer of life-sized Terracotta.  They portray both animals and humans in various postures. The human figures often have elaborate hair, modeled jewellery, and sometimes portray physical ailments. Because the vast majority of Nok terracottas have been looted from their archaeological contexts, their function in Nok society is unknown.

The first known Nok terracottas were found in 1928 in a tin mine near the village of Nok. It is from this village that the culture’s modern name is derived. The objects were placed in a museum in Jos. In 1943, more figures were found during tin mining operations near Nok, with one piece, the famous Jemaa Head, being used as the head of a scarecrow. The director of the mine bought this piece and brought it to British archaeologist Bernard Fagg in Jos. Fagg asked the tin miners to be on the lookout for more terracotta pieces which he suspected were being found but discarded.

In 1952 a national museum was opened in Jos to house the Nok terracottas that had been collected. Theft and illegal export of Nok terracottas was reported in the 1960s and in the 1970s there was a surge in both illegally exported and fake Nok terracottas on the international art market. The increasing number of fakes on the market established the importance of thermoluminescence (TL) dating for authenticity testing. In August 2012, a company that has been providing TL dates since the late 1970s, Bortolot Daybreak Corporation of Guilford, claimed that before 1993, most Nok terracottas appearing on the market were fakes, and that genuine objects were usually poorly-preserved fragments. A report prepared by archaeologist Patrick Darling in 1995 at the request of the World Heritage Committee corroborates the Bortolot story. Darling discovered that large scale looting had commenced in the Nok area in mid-1994.

By 1995, two main local traders had emerged, each able to employ about 1,000 diggers. At the height of the looting, an estimated ten terracottas a day were being uncovered, and although the majority of them were broken pieces, some were largely intact and eminently saleable. Routes out of Nigeria passed through Lomo in Togo and Cotonou in Benin

 By early 2000s, Nok terracottas of uncertain authenticity had become plentiful in the United States, available from Nigerian traders, suggesting that by then trafficking routes had extended from Europe across the Atlantic.

Although, In 1979, Nigeria’s National Commission of Museums and Monuments (NCMM) Decree no 77 was to manage Nigeria’s cultural heritage, making it illegal for anybody other than an authorized person to buy or sell antiquities within Nigeria or to export an antiquity without a permit from the NCMM, (an antiquity was defined as, among other things, an object of archaeological interest, or a work of art made before 1918 of historical, scientific or artistic interest and currently or previously used in ceremonial or traditional context) the commission has been criticized for not publishing a list of export permissions and the requirement to obtain a permit for export seems to be easily evaded. Obtaining export documentation from the NCMM by presenting material as contemporary arts and crafts for exhibition abroad, was sufficient to pass Nigerian customs.

 In 2010, US Homeland Security at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York seized ten Nok terracottas that were recognized in transit and on 26 July 2012, the pieces were formally returned to Nigeria. Nigeria’s Consul General Habib Baba Habu claimed that they had been stolen from the Nigerian National Museum in Lagos and that the museum’s director-general was under investigation.

In 2000, ‘Nok terracotta from the Bauchi Plateau and the Katsina and Sokoto regions’ was included on the International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) Red List of categories of African archaeological objects particularly at risk from looting. The Red List noted that all objects on the list were ‘protected by national legislation, banned from export, and may under no circumstances be put on sale’, and appealed to ‘museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors to stop buying them’ (ICOM 2000). It revealed that the corpus of officially excavated and provenienced Nok figures in Nigerian museums was not representative of the material appearing on the art market, and that Nigerian museums did not own any complete figures, though again, complete figures were plentiful on the market.

No form of degree seems to accurately save the Nigerian antiquities from trafficking as foreign museum acquisitions kept increasing. Musée du quai, Branly, opened in 2006, with a collection of about 300,000 objects had an exhibition which included two Nok terracottas, seemingly acquired in contravention of Nigerian law and the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (ratified by Nigeria in 1972 and France in 1997), and in disregard of the ICOM Red List. The terracottas had been bought from the Brussels dealer Samir Borro in 1998 for 2.5 million francs, and the purchase had been retrospectively authorized by the Nigerian Minister of Culture in February 2000. However, the Nigerian embassy in Paris maintained that the authorization was invalid because it had not been approved by the NCMM, and the terracottas had not been licensed for export. In March 2002, a settlement was reached whereby Nigeria agreed to loan the pieces to France for a renewable period of twenty-five years and it has been reported that in 2005 this period was extended to thirty-seven years. This apparent post hoc legitimation of illicit trade was welcomed by some commentators, but condemned by others, with the Nigerian lawyer Folarin Shyllon denouncing it as ‘an unrighteous conclusion’ and a ‘smuggler’s charter’.

However, in July 2012, a search of the Musée du quai Branly’s on-line collections database found eight Nok terracottas, none with a provenance extending back to before Nigeria’s 1979 National Commission of Museums and Monuments Decree.



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