Nigerian thorn wood figures are a highly collectible form of contemporary African folk art. Often referred to as “tourist art,” the small figures depict the every day life of the Yoruba people.
The thorns employed in the carvings come from either the egungun tree or the ata tree, and are well suited for carving because they grow to 5-inches long, and are relatively supple. Thorn wood comes in cream, rose, and brown, and the colors are often combined in figures and scenes to add both life and color. Thorn wood figures are usually around three inches tall.
Many thorn wood artists have earned renown for their skill and detailed work, among them J. D. Akeredolu, whose work has been exhibited in Lagos, Nigeria. Hand carved art is part of the long tradition of handicrafts in Nigeria. Yorubaland is the center of the Nigerian nation. Many Nigerian artistic traditions and folklore merged in Yorubaland, and the thorn wood carvers approach their work from individual perspectives. Figures engaged in daily activities like fishing, cooking, and farming were common themes. After Christianity was introduced to the region, religious iconography became popular, with church and worship scenes, and the highly collectible thorn wood creches – nativity – sets.
Admirers of thorn wood can look for wonderfully detailed chess sets, school house scenes, and village settings. Although scholars of African art often discount thorn wood figures as produced for sale to tourists, rather then created as works of art, the figures can be highly appreciated for the skills they demonstrate. Many of these pieces are “recreational” art, produced by technically gifted wood carvers during their “off time.” The popularity of thorn wood figures peaked in the early 1970s, and they were often purchased from street side vendors and in local Nigerian markets.