In Focus

Standing female figure (1974.Sc.29)

Among the Igbo peoples of north central Igboland, pubescent girls (agbogho) prepared for womanhood through a process called nkpu, which translates as “fattening confinement.” While overeating and maintaining the weight gained by not working or exercising for six months or longer (depending upon the family’s economic situation), girls spent their time learning how to be beautiful, both physically and morally. In addition to the obligatory excision, their bodies were decorated with delicately painted uli patterns and mbudu or ebubu scarification. Select village women taught the girls how to be virtuous and dutiful wives, housekeepers, and nurturing mothers. At the appointed time, the initiates reentered village life ready for marriage and family life. The event was celebrated with a promenade around the village at which time the initiated women were honored with gifts of cowries, which were used as currency before the introduction of coins and paper money.

In his 1921 book Among the Ibos of Nigeria, Anglican missionary George Thomas Basden wrote a description of Igbo girls after they had experienced the nkpu that could apply to the Dallas figure.

  • They wear no clothes whatever. Their bodies are smeared all over with Vermilion red and they are decorated with ropes of tightly twisted cloth or threaded cowrie shells. One or more tiny brass bells are fastened to the cloth or cowrie-shell waistband. Rings of brass adorn the legs, graduated in size from the ankles to just above the knees. The coiffure is a very elaborate affair and requires unlimited patience and skill to arrange in the correct style. In the center the hair is worked up with a mixture of clay, powdered charcoal and palm-oil until it becomes a sticky mass. It is then moulded into a shape resembling the central crest of a Roman helmet. The center comes well over the middle of the forehead, and it extends backwards into the nape of the neck. Below the main erection and on either side delicate patterns are traced with tiny plaits of hair curled into small coils and then plastered down flatly to the head. Finally the high center has its sides embellished with mother of pearl or bits of brass; the pieces (about the size of shillings) being sewn in with hair.

These freestanding figures usually have an elongated neck, and many are depicted holding imported umbrellas and mirrors.

The “Vermilion red” color on the statue was obtained from the inner bark of the camwood tree and used as a cosmetic among the Igbo and other sub-Saharan peoples. It was also believed to have healing properties. Basden mentions that one of the girls’ tasks during the nkpu confinement was preparing the camwood dye with which they would eventually stain their bodies. They probably learned to make the vegetable dye used for painting uli patterns and how to paint the curvilinear patterns with the thinnest sliver of wood. Uli was exclusively a woman's art until the 20th century. These sculptures, like the initiated women they portray, are the image of ideal beauty. In traditional Igbo culture, “beauty” was not only about physical appearance but also about displaying moral conduct.

Men’s age-grade associations commissioned sculptors to carve freestanding figures for display at public, secular festivals held during the dry season. They were considered prestige objects and emblems of the associations that owned them. During the festival, members paraded them around the village—much like the nkpu girls they portray and honor—and when they performed, the statue was a stationary display.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 134-135.