Artefact of the Month

Nigerian Nativity 1/Dec/2016 - 15/Jan/2017

Nativity scenes are produced in many places around Africa, not only by Christians, but also for sale to foreign tourists.   Of course, African nativities incorporate figures, scenes, plants, animals, and objects derived from life on that continent, including people with elongated silhouettes or wearing loincloths; goats, zebu, and other objects of local animal husbandry in lieu of the ox and ass; backdrop elements such as the distinctively shaped baobab tree; and a figure of baby Jesus that rests in a woven basket housed within a round, straw-thatched hut.  Among the figures there appear fishermen, traditional storytellers, and musicians playing on local instruments. 

The materials and techniques employed in the creation of these pieces are equally intriguing:  in West Africa, nativities are made of wood or bronze cast using the lost wax method, a technique that enjoys a long-standing tradition.  In Kenya in East Africa, the crafting of nativity scenes is a perfect activity for the traditional ebony carving industry, though ceramic and plant fibres are also employed to this end.

Some of the most interesting nativities of all, however, are those composed of figures carved from tree thorns, products of a Nigerian tradition born in the 1930s under the auspices of J. D. Akeredolu, an arts and crafts teacher at a state school in the city of Owo.  Akeredolu discovered that the 15-cm thorns found at the base of local cotton trees could easily be carved with a tool as unsophisticated as a pocket knife, and soon was teaching his students to do just that.  At first, his classes carved name stamps and tiny objects representative of everyday life.  As the tradition was passed down to later generations, however, additional subject matter  was introduced:  people drinking palm wine, traditional mortar milling scenes – even current social issues and political events, such as a scene of visa applicants lining up before a government booth, or the execution of a group of criminals on Bar Beach in Lagos.  As nearly half of Nigerians are Christians, thorn carvings of a religious nature came to include not only tiny Islamic mosques, but also Christian nativity figures.

The thorns of the three varieties of cotton tree are of three different colours – beige, brown, and pink – and are cut from the bark of the tree using a very sharp knife, with care taken to prevent damage.  Softer thorns are used primarily to make smaller objects, such as hats, vessels, and limbs, which are glued into place using rice-soaking water.

Nigerian tabletop nativity on display in a European home, Christmas 2014
Nigerian tabletop nativity on display in a European home, Christmas 2014

Today, thorn carvings are produced in several Nigerian towns.  This particular piece, a nativity, was donated to the Museum of Ethnography by the Bodolay sisters in memory of their parents.  The individual figures were purchased by their father, road construction engineer Dr. Jenő Bodolay, in Kano in the 1970s during the ten-year period he and his wife lived abroad for work.  The seller was a peddler who went door-to-door among the homes of Europeans.  To the best of the sisters’ knowledge, the carvings come from the city of Ibadan.  The family boasts several nativities of this type, each set up according to the personal taste of its particular owner.  This one belonged to the parents, who, upon reaching home, attached the figures to a flat panel, which they covered in straw wallpaper to match their Budapest residence’s  African decor.  The sisters, who both settled outside Hungary, still display their nativity arrangements in their own homes. 

Buying thorn carvings from a door-to-door salesman in Kano, 1971
Buying thorn carvings from a door-to-door salesman in Kano, 1971

In exhibiting this piece, the Museum of Ethnography wishes to express its deepest gratitude to the Bodolay sisters for their generous gift to the African Collection in 2016, which included a total of nearly two hundred artefacts from their parents’ estate.

Betlehem / Nativity scene
Nigeria, probably Ibadan, 1960s
From the donation of the Bodolay family, 2016
Museum of Ethnography; 2016.35.15

Edina Földessy