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Male figure, Ikenga (Igbo Peoples)

The Ikenga, a carved wooden figure from Northern Igboland, symbolizes personal achievement and power. Often holding a sword, it represents the owner's occupation and status. The Ikenga, adorned with ram's horns and intricate patterns, is a sacred symbol of hard work and mastery.

Ikenga, Igbo Peoples, Nigeria, wood (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) Speakers: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Steven Zucker.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Voiceover] One of the large ethic groups in what is now Niagara is Igbo. Among the Igbo in Northern Igboland is a tradition of creating what is known as an Ikenga. [Voicevoer] Ikenga are caved wooden figures that have a human face with animal attributes. They can be small, a couple inches. They can be very abstract, sometimes it's more naturalistic like the one we see at the Penn University Museum. [Voiceover] Likely made for a warrior. He's seated on a stool which is an important signifier of honor. He holds in his right hand, as all of Ikenga do, a sword. This is an expression of power, but in his left hand, this particular figure seems to hold a human head. That would be an expression of his warrior status. Maybe I shouldn't say they all hold a sword in the right hand, because some of the Ikenga are abstract and don't actually have arms. - [Voiceover] So, if you were Igbo, you would know that the Ikenga stood for the power of the right hand, and it really wouldn't be necessary to depict it in the carving. In other words, that same concept in African art, that it's not so much about what it looks like, but rather the concept that the figure is trying to convey. The Ikenga were personal objects that suggested the achievement of their owners, and they could relate to that persons occupation, whether they were a hunter, a farmer, maybe they were an exceptionally yam farmer. They could have been a smith, or they could be a university professor. - [Voiceover] Once an Ikenga had been commissioned by a master carver, had been consecrated, it would enter into a shrine within the owners home. - [Voiceover] The Ikenga is known as the place of strength. So, it's a personal spirit of ones human achievements, ones ability, and it holds items that helps the owner get things done. So yes, the power of the right hand is always emphasized. The right hand holds a sword, holds the ability to cut through things to get to what one wishes in life. The left hand can hold a whole host of things including the tusk of an elephant in the form of a trumpet, a head, or even a staff to suggest ones rank. - [Voiceover] Let's take a close look at this particular object. We have rams horns that are almost as big as the entire body. They curl at the top, and they're decorated with these wonderful vertical and horizontal abstract forms. - [Voiceover] There's a great saying among the Igbo that a ram fights with his head first. The idea that any action is taken first with the heads. The head is emphasized, the power, the aggression, the strength of the head in these rams horns. We'll notice that it has a lot of detailing on the sides, these pod-shaped forms with dots and lines incised into them, which seems to mirror what the figure has on the sides of his head. - [Voiceover] You also see that there are decorative patterns that have been cut into the body, which are likely the representation of scarification of body decoration. - [Voiceover] Typically, scarification found on the temple and also on the forehead suggested that the wear was a title holding member of an Igbo society. So, this figure, who also has this pattering on his temple and on his horns seems to also suggest that high-rank. - [Voiceover] So, this is not a portrait. We shouldn't think of it in that way, but it is a symbolic representation of the power or the authority and the accomplishment of the individual for whom this was made. - [Voiceover] I'd like to think of it as a sacred diploma, something that you would hang in your office to remember the status that you've reached through hard work, through discipline, through the mastery of a craft. - [Voiceover] I would love to have my own personal Ikenga. (soft piano music)