Showcasing the art and ritual of the African and African-diaspora religions

Ikenga Statue (Igbo)

Catalog Number: J064


7.39" x 6.28" x 22.123"

187.61 mm x 159.56 mm x 56.19242 mm


Country of Origin: Nigeria
Materials: Wood
Usage: Ritual (used)
Detailed Description of Significance:

Ikenga is a masculine divinity of success and achievement among the Igbo—a people of southeastern Nigeria—as well as among their neighbors, the Bakuba, Edo, and Igala. Each man has his own Ikenga, a spirit concerned with the success one achieves by his or her own efforts. Ike, “power,” refers to the strength of the right hand employed in physical labor.

Ikenga may take three forms in artwork. One is a small, abstract cylinder with horns, chipped from hardwood; another is a humanoid figure with an elaborate, geometric headdress. This carving is of a third type, that of a smoothly carved, nude, elderly man with two curved or coiled ram’s horns, standing between six inches (15.25 cm) to six feet (1.83 m) tall, carved from soft wood. Ikenga of this type are often bedecked in expensive accoutrements, such as the staff of a nobleman and intricate body designs. These elements all reference Ikenga’s concern for personal prestige and the achievement of goals. The staff, for instance, is a sign of high station. Likewise, the horns suggest a strong and daring nature that is able to propel the individual to greater heights. Additionally, they refer to two palms turned toward the sky, an Igbo symbol of honest dealings. The fact that Ikenga is generally shown as an aged man acknowledges the social prestige of titled elders (Ozo), those people able to achieve ancestral status after death. Ikenga figures usually have alert expressions and stand in a guardian stance to emphasize that they must be awake to help their owners. The more abstract Ikenga statues closely resemble ancestral statues known as Okposi, suggesting that veneration of Ikenga may once have been more directly related to ancestor veneration.

Figurative Ikenga statues may show the divinity standing or seated, with a pair of implements in his two hands. The left hand generally holds some symbol of triumph, such as the severed head of a foe, a bag of money, or an elephant tusk, while the right holds the tool used to secure that victory, such as a machete or ceremonial sword (abana). More recently carved Ikenga figures may wield guns. These figures often have scarification patterns on their foreheads that refer to membership in the Ozo society. In generations past, the way an Ikenga was decorated depended in part on the status of its owner; one with Ozo scarification marks, for instance, could only be owned by a member of the Ozo society. Likewise, an Ikenga holding a cutlass and severed head may have belonged to a warrior. Yet this is far from certain—often Ikenga were carved to reflect achievements the owner hoped to achieve, not only those he had already accomplished. Likewise, the items in the Ikenga’s hands could be interpreted indirectly, too, such that a machete and head might merely refer to the owner’s desire for bravery and success in his endeavors. Over years of use, Ikenga can accumulate residue from the ritual offerings of blood, chewed kola nut and alligator pepper, and foods.