Lot 73
  • 73

Igbo Male Shrine Figure (Ikenga), Nigeria

15,000 - 25,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • wood, pigment
  • Height: 52 1/2 in (133.4 cm)


Ben Birillo, New York
Allan Stone, New York, acquired from the above on July 13, 1992

Catalogue Note

The Igbo people are a vast cultural group situated in southeastern Nigeria, with a highly sophisticated cosmology in which numerous forms of expressive visual arts are essential.  This important Nigerian group is perhaps best known in the outside world today through the writing of the Igbo author Chinua Achebe (1930-2013), and his magnum opus of 1958, Things Fall Apart.  The most important personal ritual objects in traditional Igbo culture are the ikenga shrine figures, which are found in a wide variety of forms and sizes throughout Igboland. Although they possess certain constant attributes, these sculptures range from small, highly abstract figures to large, expressively naturalistic statues like the present ikenga.  According to Cole and Aniakor (1984: 24), "The concept of ikenga reverberates throughout much of Igbo life."

Cole and Aniakor note (ibid.), "Igbo success in material, social, even spiritual and political terms ultimately rests in moral determination and physical strength.  The prevailing ideal has been an excellent yam farmer who accumulates wealth and prestige, titles, a large family, and finally, an honored place among prosperous and respected ancestors.  This will to succeed is institutionalized in personal shrines, ikenga, maintained by men in most [Igbo] regions and only occasionally by women."

He continues (ibid.: 24-25): "The basic Igbo ikenga image is a human with horns [...].  Larger, more elaborate examples include fully realized males seated on stools, holding and wearing various symbols [...]. Ikenga as shrine, symbol, and idea, incorporates a person's chi, his ancestors, his right arm or hand, aka ikenga, his power, ike, as well as spiritual activation through prayer and sacrifice.  Young men acquire ikenga at varying ages in different regions but commonly have one by the time they are married and have established a family."

Cole continues (ibid: 30): "The primary diagnostic of all ikenga is a pair of horns, and the primary meaning of horns to the Igbo is power, especially masculine power.  [...] Ikenga horns are often identified as those of a ram [...] the ram's aggression [...] is reinforced by the common occurance of a long-bladed knife and severed trophy head, expressing superiority and success in warfare, which are (or at least were) part of the male ethos."

The present ikenga, whose weathered surface suggests significant age and a period of long exposure to the elements in situ, is of a particularly lively, expressive sculptural style.  With fleshy features, an impressive set of horns, and a mischeviously confident toothy grin, it is a superb image of the strength and prosperity ikenga expresses.