Posted by on Apr 4, 2019 in publications | 0 comments

Wood as Life Force: Igbo Ikenga Sculpture

 Cosmas Onyenweuwa Mbawuike                                                                                                                                          Fine and Applied Arts Department                                                                                                                                                 Federal University Ndufu-Alike Ikwo Ebonyi.                                                                                                                               Phone: 08036134837                                                                                                                                                                           Email:



Wood has remained one of man’s basic construction materials from man’s earliest times. It has been used for spirituality in terms of carvings and live totems. Note worthy is that indigenous architecture and art draw its material from available resources in the artist’s locality. Igbo carvers in the classical era used wood for most of the sculptures that were produced for the society which were derived from the thick forest vegetation where the Igbo are geographically posited. Among these products were the Ikenga sculptures. The Ikenga sculpture in the Igbo mythology was a life force of a guardian spirit that protected a man and his family. This paper introduces wood as a medium for the Igbo-expression of her spirituality. The paper then assesses the physical and spiritual strength of wood as a medium among the Igbo and its choice for the production of the Ikenga as a spiritual force. The paper also concludes by elucidating this amalgam of wood and spirituality.


The Igbo live in the area that is today geographically called South-Eastern region of Nigeria. They also spill into some parts of South-South region area of the country though in lesser population. They had lived for centuries in this part of the world before the British intrusion and subsequent colonization in the twentieth century. The Igbo cultural, religion and cosmology spin around an ordered existence involving spiritual forces and deities that have come to represent the Igbo way of life. One of such spiritual forces is Igbo Ikenga wood sculpture known as the cult of the right hand of a man. The Igbo Ikenga sculptural pieces were not made as representation of the forces in order to interest or please human audience but as object within which the spirit may dwell. Nature in the Igbo cosmology in its broadest sense is not an empty impersonal object or phenomenon, it is filled with religious significance. Man gives spiritual life to natural objects even when the natural objects or phenomenon have no biological life. These objects are God’s creation, they manifest him and they symbolize his being and presence. The Igbo strongly believe that it was these Ikenga sculpture and other spirit forces that influences and determine their social and spiritual wellbeing, political and economic stability, success and failure in life.

The Igbo Ikenga is unlike the type of Ikenga found in Igala land in present day Kogi State, they call theirs Okega, and the Benin and Delta groups, bordering Western Niger Igbo groups, who call theirs Ikengobo.

Concept of Igbo Sculpture: Wood As Life Force

                Igbo sculpture should be viewed as born out of the people’s traditional religious concepts and needs, its origin can never therefore be separated from the origin of their traditional religion. Obiora in Echeruo and Obiechina (1971) says “God created the visible universe (Uwa). Many aspects of the universe exist in two levels the nature level, and the spiritual forces level, Alusi”. Furthermore, in his own view, Arinze (1970), described these spirits which God created as his assistants, “Spirits are subordinates to Chukwu (God). They are God’s agents. His messengers, and it is they who more or less run the world. No ‘Alusi’ (spirit), no matter how strong can affect anything without Chukwu”.

                The concept of traditional Igbo sculpture as held by Obiora in Echeruo and Obiechina (1971) again said:

Traditional Igbo art (sculpture) is an Art of Belief. He further describe that once a statuette was carved and consecrated, which involved all sorts of rituals, it was believed that the spirit or God portrayed informed it. It was no longer a piece of wood but the spirit itself. Thus carving was essentially a sacred activity. It was often carried on away from public gaze.

In the traditional Igbo society, carving is a sacred profession. This is why traditional carvers (sculptors) are not regarded as ordinary citizens.  Anyanwu (2016) affirms, that, “…they share equal social and religious status with chief priests and diviners. They are regarded as people who can see beyond the physical world, as people who invoke or by incantations can invite spirits to inhabit their works”. Because of their knowledge of the animistic powers of the trees, they know what necessary rituals and scarifies to perform so that the piece of carving may be acceptable to the spirit force.

These sculptural pieces were not made as representation of the spirit forces in order to interest or please human audience but as objects within which the spirits may dwell. They do not give them that beautiful image of man because they believe that man as a being is not perfect. So, because of this belief, they sought to represent the gods or spirit with a different structure to add force and power to the work. Ola Oloidi (1997:20) asserted,

The African traditional abstraction is not the outburst of an uninformed imagination, but the concept of a mind in command of its culture. The abstract images of African art are not disorganized reality but reorganized reality; they are interpretations, not empty representations. The physical component of the image counts for little, while   the spiritual component means nearly everything. Naturalism in art may deceive, spiritualism does not. This group believes real beauty is to be found only in the mind or character, not in the body. Physical beauty without morality is not beauty but vanity this is why traditional art is a moral instrument, an art for life.

      The Igbo believe that not just any type of wood that can be used for these wood sculptures. Different types of wood have their individual spiritual significance and potency. Woods such as Ogirisi Orji, Anunuebe, Ngwu are preferred. This gives rise to the sayings, “Ngwu bu Arusi”, which means that “Ngwu is a deity”. The tree Ngwu is relatively scarce, which give it the air of importance that it enjoys. The Igbo accords a lot of respect to any farm, land or ground where Ngwu is seen or grown. Egbo (2016) avers that “no part or branch of Ngwu wood is used for fire wood”. Consequently, some well known men in the society do borrow a title name from the belief for their titles, such as “Ani na efu Ngwu” which means the “land/ground that can produce Ngwu”. James (1980) says “Igbo gave identity and personality to the unknown spirit forces. Spirit was ‘personalization’ of forces which everyone feared and could not cope with on other levels. And once enrolled with on identity, a spirit became human beings”.

                Visual representations of these unknown forces were therefore made to form the basis of contact and communication with them. This was how carved images and shrines came into being. Establishing harmony and good relationship with these Igbo sculptures does not in any way deprive the people their own respect from the spirit force. This is what informed the saying that, “Arusi wakaria anya, a gwa ya osisi e jiri pia ya”. This means that when a deity over stretches its boundary, the wood out of which it was produced or made, will be revealed to it”.

The Concept of Ikenga

                Religion and art have always been together, and every religion has used it at one point or the other to express its beliefs. Religion has used art decoration, for instructing the faithful, and for commemoration. Nwoga (1979), says “We the Igbo do not know what the supreme God is all about, but we believed in something that is higher than human being. We deal directly with the representations of God which we know”. In the traditional societies, artists used their creativity and ability to produce objects that used as links to their creator or god’s representatives.

The supreme God, according to an Igbo mythology, after creating the world saw the necessity for deputies or assistants; otherwise it would be too burdensome for him alone to control the entire world. He then created the lesser spirits also known as gods or deities and assigned to each one specific powers and functions”. These gods include Amadioha or Igwekala (god of thunder), Aja-Ala or Ala (earth goddess), Iyi mmiri (god of water like Nwangene and Idemili), ‘Ikenga’ (cult of man’s right arm), Ekwo Omumu (fertility goddess), and a host of other spirit force. These gods are responsible to supreme God who remains the overall authority of all things. It was a common belief therefore that those spirit forces influenced and determined the people’s social well-being, political and economic stability, success and failures in life. All sorts of sickness and misfortunes are attributed to these unseen forces. Aniakor (1984), asserted that “Deities like to be remembered, thanked, honoured and feasted and in return are expected to provide protection, fertility, high crop yields and general well-being for human custodians”. The Igbo Ikenga sculpture, viewed as born out of the people traditional religions concepts and needs, its origin can never therefore be separated from the origin of their traditional religion.

Basden (1966) defines Ikenga as “exclusively a man’s god”, without the Ikenga, he said, “no householder would rest in peace, its absence would be considered fatal”, while on the other hand, Chukwuezi (1985), view Ikenga as “the cult of the right hand which identifies with a man’s diverse field of endeavour, provided his Chi (guarding spirit) agrees completely with his aspiration. It guarantees good fortune in farming, hunting, trading, war, creative arts, ritual and title taking events”. Igbo Ikenga sculpture is in the image of a horned male figure made out of wood. The horn symbolizes the aggressive, assertive, and powerful nature of male being. Ram is an example of such male animal. This leads to the saying, Ebule ji isi eje ogu  -the ram fights with its head”.

                Ikenga is known as one of the symbols of power and authority and it also serves as a link between the dead and the living – a cult of the right hand which is linked to ones Chi. It is a belief among the Igbo that there is no misfortune or success that can befall a man without the knowledge of his Chi. For example, when one is successful or lucky, he will be told Chi gi muanya which means that “Your God is alive”. Chi onye na edu ya: means “ones god leads him”.

                The         Igbo Ikenga sculpted in wood, could be in abstract and highly stylized or less abstract and more humanistic. In a more elaborate form, Ikenga is given a head and it may also be given legs. John (1977) further explains that a typical Ikenga type is represented by seated male figure holding a matched in one hand (right) and a severed human head in the other and crowned with a pair of horns. Here, all the limbs are shown and given rounded less regular form, the proportions of the human figure are observed”. Igbo Ikenga sculpture also depicts male genital, this makes reference to procreativity. It symbolizes procreation and fertility. Ikenga is maintained, kept or owned by men. Women do not own or commission Ikenga to be made for the. A woman is protected by her faterher’s Ikenga and later by her husband’s. The possession of Ikenga depicts high status, accomplishment, wealth and integrity in the society.


                The Igbo wood sculptures are real to the people, and are believed to exist with definite functions. Generally, they stand as intermediaries between God and the people. Prayers and scarifies are made to God through them. The wood sculpture have been known for centuries to exist in various Igbo communities and other parts of Africa at large, and has roles to play in the upkeep and co-existence in such communities. It is also believed that the Igbo Ikenga influences the social order, condition and stabilization of human societies. Ikenga retains its prowess and powers over the living. This is as a result of the fact that man in his daily life is faced with the life of uncertainty, danger, scarcity of resources and powerlessness, which chase man around and make him to seek refuge in spirituality.

                The Igbo are more religious than political and cultural. The Igbo deal directly with the pantheon of gods and deities like the Ikenga and other spirit forces instead of relating with the supreme God through human intermediaries like the kings of Ife and Benin. Before the colonization and subsequent Christianization of Igbo land, the Igbo had a strong culture, tradition and a belief system. The Ikenga among other Igbo a notable sculpture was regarded as fetish, primitive and idolatrous by the British colonialists and was also cast away because it did not look like those of the classical renaissance period. The sculptures were not naturalistic and do not go in accord with the intellectual norms of Western anatomy, perspective and proportion. Igbo Ikenga sculpture is an answer to satisfy the religious requirements of the traditional Igbo society, an art for life. Ikenga was not an empty representative or fetish it was the guardian spirit of it owner.



Arinze, F. A. in Boston, J. S. (ed) (1970), Sacrifice in Religion. Ibadan     University press Ibadan.

Basdan, G. T. (1966), Among the Ibos of Nigeria, Ibadan: Ibadan University Press.

Chukwuezi, B. (1965), “Ikenga object among the Uzo-uwani Igbo and some manifestation of belief”, in Ikoro, VoI,                VI, No.2.

Cole, Herbert M. and Aniakor, C.C. (1984), Igbo Arts Community and COSMOS Regents of University of California.

James, E.O. (1980), Origin of sacrifice. Mac million Publishing co. New York.

John Boston (1977), Ikenga figures among the north-west Igbo and Igala, (Lagos: Federal Department of   Antiquities, Nigeria), quoted in A.C.        Afigbo, Ikenga: The state of our knowledge.

Nwoga, D. I. (1979).The supreme God as strange in Igbo Religious Though. Hawk Press Ahiazu Mbaise

Oloidi, Ola (1997), African contemporary art. B.A. lecture note.

Udechuwku, Obiora in Echeruo and Obiechina, E.N. (1971), Igbo traditional        life, culture and literature. Cunch     Vol.III.


Oral Interview

Anyanwu, E.I. (2016), A traditional Carver, in Mbaise, Imo State, Nigeria. Direct interview.

Egbo, P.O. 2016, traditional titled man, direct interview in Nsukka, Enugu State, Nigeria.

Photographic Ikenga image by Mbawuike Cosmas

A simple form Igbo Ikenga with Horns

The Ikenga figure, with a set of horns bears Matchet on the right hand, and severed human head on the left. It depicts victory and represents a warrior’s cult of the right hand in Igbo culture. It was gotten from Abo-Mbaise



Ikenga figure is Ram headed with a set of horns. It has a semi abstract face.













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