In the novel Arrow of God 1 Chinua Achebe showed that Africans had government, religion, astronomy, philosophy, science, architecture, and art before the coming of Europeans. It is the aim of this writer to show how Achebe brought art into focus by showing the dovetailing of art and life: the roles of art and the artist; that there was aesthetics and patrons of art and that not all art was devoted to religious purposes, in traditional Igbo society.2 Achebe could not espouse all the above robustly in his first novel, Things Fall Apart set also in the past, before and at the inception of colonization. To achieve the task he set for himself, he brought art into focus by creating a principal character, Edogo an artist and the first son of Ezeulu, a priest, the protagonist of the story. It is ones aim to show in this paper how Achebe went about this task of showing the interpenetration of art and life in the novel Arrow of God. This question may, however arise: What has art got to do with fiction? Or cast in another light: How can fiction validate a tangible construct such as art and if stretched further, life?3
It is, however, worth remembering that in Africa art is for life sake and not for art sake. Art is used for example to validate the myth or story of incarnation and the contiguity of the land of the living, Ani madu, and the land of the dead, Ani mmoo. This is in the form of the art of masquerading. So art and fiction or literature, both written and oral, are like Siamese twins used by man to solidify his grip on reality or to pursue or procure change or his aspirations.4
The Igbo developed their art to suit their society and environment. They had talented individuals who practiced their profession along side being farmers mainly. The society recognized these talented individuals and accorded them respect. Their profession was passed down to their talented children and apprentices. According to Chike Aniakor:
That the Igbo recognize creativity as part of divine immanence is well known since, in fact, Ala the earth goddess is the mainspring of creativity. Talents are thus engraved on the artist’s palms as akala aka. That the artist could rise in creative accomplishment is well known among the Igbo. Hence the highly accomplished ones are known as dinka – lit. husband of artistry or more appropriately, the master artist.5
So there were artists, men and women and there were modes of practice peculiar to each gender. The women practiced body adornment, coiffure, mural painting and pottery while the men engaged in sculpture, blacksmithing, architecture, wicker work and masquerading.
Among the women, the art of pottery was highly developed by skilled individuals. This art was essentially domestic or utilitarian serving ceremonial, musical and ritual functions. These wares were sold in the market by their makers. Achebe recognized this mercantilism thus:
The day was Eke and before long Akukalia and his companions began to pass women from all the neighbouring villages on their way to the famous Eke Okperi market. They were mostly women from Elumelu and Abame who made the best pots in all the surrounding country. Everyone carried a towering load of five or six or even more big water pots held together with a net of robes on a long basket, and seemed in the half light like a spirit with fantastic head. p. 18, 19
Along side this mercantilism developed what Aniakor called “market aesthetics” which denotes standards to which these pots were subjected by the buyer before purchase was made.6 Among the assortment of pottery wares produced by women were ceremonial wine pots that bore sophisticated uli decorations, incised geometric designs and animal motif patterns. Some of these pots bore structural complexities in the form of limited super structures because of the structural inadequacies of clay. However, one may find decorations on domestic pots in the form of hatches, cross hatches and dots. Today, pottery still exists but is in a wane in pottery centres like Inyi, Afikpo, Ishiagu and Awha.7
Igbo women practiced the art of body decoration using uli and ogalu. Uli is usually painted or drawn on the body during performances, ceremonies or festivals or when going to the market or paying visits to prospective husbands or during rites of passage like mgbede which marks the transition from “girlhood to womanhood”. There are however other permanent body markings or scarification like mbubu for women done on the abdomen and ichi done on the face for titled men. According to Liz Willis, “In the hope of attracting attention and admiration young women emerging from mgbede are painted from head to toe with maze-like patterns called Ogaalu that are reminiscent of animal markings.”8
Achebe illustrated these body embellishment practices thus:
Ezeulu’s younger wife examined her hair in a mirror held between her thighs. She could not help feeling that she did a better job on Akueke’s hair than Akueke did on hers. But she was pleased with the black patterns of uli and faint yellow lines of ogalu on her body. p. 66
It should be noted that men were sometimes decorated by their wives or sisters with uli markings in preparation for Ozo title taking ceremonies or wrestling matches.
Beyond linear expressiveness, contrapuntal space and formal design concepts, uli is characterized also by signs and symbols used as motif that are derived from astronomy, animals, plants, folklore and Igbo worldview. Uli elements were not rigid but dynamic changing slightly with geography and the hand of the artist. They were recognized among the people. Igbo women also used uli elements and motifs to paint murals on compound and shrine walls using earth colours and vegetal dyes in preparation for ceremonies or festivals.
Aside murals as architectural decorations, it was also the custom among the Igbo to decorate their houses with carved or sculptural components. According to Aniakor:
The traditional builder very well knows that house structures need a sculptural face which helps to explain why house units are lavishly embellished with a variety of sculptural decorations of the carved mode. Builders only know too well that house units as three dimensional forms define a spatial environment which can only be “energized” with an ambitious programme of architectural decorations.9
Among these architectural decorations were wooden panels, house posts and carved doors. Carved doors are usually composed of large panels of iroko tree upon which the artist carved lavish linear and geometric designs. These doors usually provide functional as well as aesthetic utility and also served as status makers. They had no religious or occult connotations and were usually commissioned by title holders and wealthy individuals. Because of their mundane nature the artist could carve them in his compound. Achebe illustrated all the above thus:
“She immediately came into the obi followed by her husband who had been carving an iroko door for the compound of a titled man when his wife returned.” p. 87
“He put down the chisel with which he was absent mindedly straightening the intersecting lines on the iroko door.” p. 92
“They left the Obi to their right and went into the inner compound through the only other entrance – a high, carved door in the red, earth walls”. p. 7
These doors usually came in different sizes and varying designs and were wide spread across Igboland, denoting the wealth and political status of their owners as well as the skills and creative acumen of the artists.
The competent artist was first of all his own critic and aspired to excel in creativity. Edogo displayed anxiety over how the mask he had carved would be received by the people. The masquerade, as an art mode, did not consist only of the mask but also the costume, song, music and dance. The masquerade was kinetic art – performance. So, among the Igbo there is a saying that: “one does not appreciate the masquerade standing in only one position.” All these Achebe was at pains to show in this passage:
Although Edogo could have taken one of the back seats in the Okwolo he chose to stand with the crowd so as to see the mask from different positions. When he had finished carving the face and head he had been a little disappointed. There was something about the nose which did not please him – a certain fineness which belonged not to an Agaba but a Maiden Spirit. But the owners of the work had not complained; in fact they had praised it highly. Edogo knew, however, that he must see the mask in action to know whether it was good or bad. So he stood with the crowd. p. 200
Achebe also sought “to demonstrate that among the Igbo of south eastern Nigeria there is in existence, critical and cultural standards for aesthetic judgment.”10 Members of the society were critics as well as consumers of art and were expected to judge the creative works of their artists, compare their skills and rate them against aesthetic standards:
Looking at it now that it had come to life the weakness seemed to disappear. It even seemed to make the rest of the face more fierce. Edogo went from one part of the crowd to another in the hope that someone would make the comparison he wanted to hear, but no one thought of comparing it with the famous Agaba of Umuagu, if only to say that this one was not as good as that. If Edogo had heard anyone say so he might have been happy. He had not after all set out to excel the greatest carver in Umuaro, but he had hoped that someone would link their two names. He began to blame himself for not sitting in the okwolo. There among the elders, was a more likely place to hear the kind of conversation he was listening for. But it was too late now. p. 200
The elders, who were the principal patrons of art as a result of their political and religious roles, were also consummate critics who by virtue of age and experience had acquired the requisite knowledge, through informal training that happened by way of participation in communal life, which led to connoisseurship.
The masquerade is the sublimation of Igbo creative genius. Masking is a multimedia event consisting of sculpture, weaving, fashion design, song, music and performance. Masquerades are spirits incarnate serving different functions for those that invoke them: for children entertainment; for youth terror and aggression; for the elders dignity, authority and veneration. According to Simon Ottenberg,“Art and aesthetics, whatever else they do, here act in the service of male identification and maturation.”11Achebe illustrates a masquerade owned by an age grade:
The mask arrived appropriately on the crest of the excitement. The crowd scattered in real or half-real terror. It approached a few steps at a time, each one accompanied by the sound of bells and rattles on its waist and ankles. Its body was covered in bright new cloths mostly red and yellow. The face held power and terror; each exposed tooth was the size of a big man’s thumb, the eyes were large sockets as big as a fist, two gnarled horns pointed upwards and inwards above its head nearly touching at the tip. It carried a shield of skin in the left hand and a huge machete in the right. p. 198
There is a masquerade for every occasion or ceremony: ritual, rites of passage or festival; for discipline, chastisement and adjudication. Masks could be owned by an individual, age group, village or the entire community. Masquerades are a summary of Igbo worldview and cosmos.
Religious and occult artworks, like masks and idols, because of their peculiar nature and function were not sculpted in the artist’s compound. They were worked on in secluded structures built for such work. These buildings are a parallel of today’s studios where artists work in seclusion for privacy and concentration:
If it had been any other kind of carving Edogo would have finished it long ago, working at it any moment his hands were free. But a mask was different; he could not do it in the home under the profane gaze of women and children but had to retire to the spirit-house built for such work at a secluded corner of the Nkwo market place where no one who had not been initiated in the secret of masks would dare to approach. p. 151
Ritualistic and occult artworks like idols and masquerades were created in secrecy and could only be put to use and made public after consecration rites.
Achebe also showed that religious symbolism was on aspect of Igbo art. He focused on the Ikenga, ofo and Okposi, all personal symbols used in worship of ones personal god chi and ancestors:
Ezeulu rose from his goatskin and moved to the household shrine on a flat board behind the central dwarf wall at the entrance. His ikenga, about as tall as a man’s forearm, its animal horn as long as the rest of its human body, jostled with faceless okposi of the ancestors with the blood of sacrifice, and his short personal staff of ofo. p. 6
The ofo functions to enforce morality in kinship, judicial, political and religious spheres, while the okposi which is a symbol of one’s pact with his chi and ancestors help to determine ones destiny. The Ikenga which symbolizes personal achievement and individuality is also a status symbol that denotes ones wealth resulting from its artistic complexity and the financial implication.12 An act of sacrilege on any of these symbols could provoke fatal consequences:
What happened next was the work of Ekwensu the bringer of evil. Akukalia rushed after Ebo, went into his obi took the ikenga from his shrine, rushed outside again and, while everyone stood aghast, split it in two. p. 24
Ebo shot Akukalia to death for desecrating and destroying his ikenga in his bid to make himself right again before his chi and his ancestors. p. 25
The artist was an integral member of his society and functioned there – in; he was not at the margin. The artist could rise in his society and was usually acknowledged for his creative acumen and excellence. He usually earned a part of living costs from his work and was mainly a farmer. Master craftsmen usually had apprentices:
When Obika walked away with his friend, Edogo returned to the shade of the ogbu tree in front of his compound to resume work on the door he was carving. It was nearly finished and after it he would leave carving for a while and face his farm work. He envied master craftmen like Agwuegbo whose farms were cultivated for them by their apprentices and customers. p. 90
As shown above the artist could exchange his skill for farm labour or any other service or was paid with money.
The artist in Igbo land was at the centre of his society and not at the margin. The artist was a centripetal factor who helped to weave the society together on both the temporal and spiritual planes. The society knew the artist’s worth and acknowledged him, because his talent and handwork could propel him to a high strata in the society, dinka, and he was well remunerated for his services. There were also aesthetic codes by which the society judged the artist’s work and creative standards which the artist was expected to uphold. Artworks were owned by individuals, age groups, kindreds, villages and the entire community. These artworks served ritual, celebratory and aesthetic purposes; were also status markers and for self affirmation. In Igbo land art served as a centripetal factor in each community and was a means for celebrating life and venerating the dead.
- Chinua Achebe. 1964. Arrow of God. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.
- Chike C. Aniakor. 1982. “Igbo Aesthetics (An Introduction)”. Nigeria Magazine Lagos: Department of Culture, Federal Ministry of Social Development, Youth and Culture. pp. 3 – 15.
- Chinua Achebe. 2007. “The Truth of Fiction.” African Literature, An Anthology of Criticism and Theory. Olaniyan, Tejumola and Quayson, Ato. Malden: Blackwell Publishing p. 107 – 114.
- Chinua Achebe. 1986. “What Has Literature Got To Do With It?” Tapping Nigeria’s Limitless Cultural Treasures (Festival Souvenir). Ed. Frank Aig-Imoukhuede. Lagos: National Council for Arts and pp. 25 – 29.
- Chike C. Aniakor. 1986. “The State of Igbo Art Studies.” Nigeria Magazine 54. No. 1 Jan – March. pp. 9 – 17.
- Chike C. Aniakor. 1986. “Igbo Aesthetics (An Introduction)”. p. 12, 13.
- Vincent Ali. 2001. “Igbo Traditional Pottery: Types, Forms and Function.” Uso: Nigerian Journal of Art. Volume 3 No. 1 & 2 Jan 2000 – Dec. 2001. pp. 22 – 32.
- Liz Willis. 1989. “Uli Painting and the Igbo World View.” African Arts xxiii, No. 1 November. p. 65.
- Chike C. Aniakor. 2005. “The Adaptive Potentials of Nigerian Traditional Architecture and Building Technology”. Reflective Essays on Art and Art History. Enugu: Pan-African Circle of Artists Press. p. 122.
- Chike C. Aniakor. 1982. P. 4
- Simon Ottenberg. 1988. “Psychological aspects of Igbo Art.” African Arts xxi No. 2. p. 72.
- Eli Bentor. 1988. “Life as an Artistic Process: Igbo Ikenga and Ofo”. African Arts. xxi, No. 2. p. 66.