Visual analysis

Cover Story AFRICA

Art co[inoisseurs in Britain and elsewhere are currently being treated to an exhibition of some of the finest art to have come from Africa, specifically from lle-ife in Nigeria. The exhibition, which runs tili 6 June, is part of a season of African art and culture at the British Museum, mounted to coincide with Nigeria’s 50th independence anniversary celebrations. Juliet Highet has been to see it, and she was bowled over.

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T he entrance room was dark; straight ahead v̂ -as a dramaii- taliy lit crowned head of glowing copper. The impact was stunning – tíie head radiating divine energy, yet the sculpture Vi’as restrained, refined and infinitely dignified. Immediately one was aware of being in the presence of

great art, immersed in a profound spiritual experience. Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa is part of a season of African art and culture at the British Museum to coincide with the 50th independence anniversary celebrations of Nigeria, the highlight of which falls on 1 October 2010, the actual Independence Day.

The works exhibited in London until 6 June 2010 have already been shown in Spain, and will travel on a North American tour until April 2012 to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts at Richmond, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Museum of African Art in New York. The exhibition tells thestory of the legendary city of Ile-Ife through some of the most poetically beautiful sculptures created in Africa, artworks acknowledged now as ranking among the most technically sophis- ticated and aesthetically remarkable in the history of world art.

The metal» terracotta and stone sculptures mostly date from the 12th to the 15th centuries, created by artists from Ife, then a powerful city-state located in present-day southwestern Nigeria.

in all its glory Almost 100 sculptures have been lent by Nigeria’s National Com- mission for Museums 6i Monuments whose director-general, Dr Joseph Eboreieme, commetited that although “some ofthese great treasures have travelled beyond our borders before, there has never been an exhibition devoted to exploring the great variety of Ife art… It shows how the idea of divine ruletship inspired artists in Nigeria, as early as the 9th century… and how the artists were [also] concerned with the day-to-day lives of ordinary people.”

The technological virtuosity of these sculptors created an im- pressive diversity of artworks, the most moving and exquisite of which are the portrait heads and human figures, mostly in cop- per alloy, of Ife’s kings and queens, complete with magnificent royal regalia, indicating the city’s wealth, power and influence. The terracotta and stone sculptures are also figurative, some be- ing expressive caricatures, others showing youth and old age or disease and deformity. Whereas the metal works convey serenity and se It-assurance, some of the terracottas depict violence and misfortune, as in those of gagged prisoners awaiting execution; arguably these were the polarities of life in lie at that time.

Exquisite sculptures of Ife’s kings and queens, such as this Olukun piece, come with magnificent royal regalia


Cover Story AFRICA

Such was the height of creative refinement, sensitivity and technical accomplishment of Ife art, that when Europeans first “discovered” it in the early zoth century, they could not believe that such “classical” work was of African origin, and assumed it was Greek. Tlie numinous quality and idealised naturalism so universally admired is due to the fact that these lifelike human representations were never intended as actual portraits, though each has notahle individual characteristics. “They are icons of divine tulership, as well as expressions ofthe Yoruba belief in the divinity inherent in all living things, especially human beings.

Ife rulers were empowered in life by the deities, and some were deified themselves after death. Politics and religion, secular and sacred are interwoven in Yoruba philosophy. As Thurston Shaw wrote about the extraordinary copper-alloy heads, they are “striking exemplifications of repose and serenity – in fact, all the qualities of character (and hence of beauty) most sought after in a ruler… They are explorations ofthe nature of kings and king- ship, of divine authority and its proper exercise.”

From the 12th to the 15th centuries, Ife flourished as a power- ful, prosperous and cosmopolitan city-state, and these sculptures convey an impression of at least some ofthe inhabitants’ privileged lifestyle. A[ that time it was an influential centre of commerce connected to extensive local and long-distance trade networks, enabling the region to flourish and Ife to establish significant political and religious authority. It also attracted craftspeople, artists and entrepreneurs from far and wide. Ife’s rulers were noted patrons of brass-casting, bead-making and weaving.

Ife is an abbreviation of Ile-lfe, meaning the House of Ife, or the People of Ife’s House. Today Ife is still regarded as the spiritual heartland ofthe Yoruba people and their descendants, who number more than 35 million, living in Nigeria, other areas of West Africa, and scattered around the globe.

According to Yoruba myth, Ife was the centre ofthe creation ofthe world and all its people. It is tbe ancestral home of 16 leg- endary kingdoms that started to flourish around 1100-1200 C.E. The kings, queens and deities at the core of Yoruba oral history still characterise its culture, and all trace their origins to this ancient centre of divinity, royalty, art and trade.

Today, Ife i.s a bustling metropolis, with a population of around 600,000, the city supporting a university, arts centre, palace and many sacred shrines and groves. In two of these groves in particular, numerous sculptures were found. The Iwinrin Grove revealed a substantial number of terracotta heads and fragments from life-size figures; while the Ore Grove was filled with stone monoliths, human and animal sculptures. Both are still places of active ceremonial life where shrines contain old objects as well as newer ones.

Other sites, like Ita Yemoo, have yielded spectacular pieces with royal associations including the only complete king figure and an exquisite terracotta head believed to be a queen. At the royal burial site of Lafogido, terracotta elephant and hippopotamus heads were discovered, adorned with beaded regalia and diadems, elephants having royal associations. The hippo is called “the elephant of the water”, and the Ooni or King of Ife is actually referred to as an elephant. According to Yoruba legend, “One does not say that the Ooni is dead but that the elephant has fallen.”

“Such was the height of creative refinement, sensitivity and technicai accompiishment of Ife art, that when Europeans first ‘discovered’ it in the early 20th century, they couid not beiieve that such ‘ciassicai’ woric was of African origin, and assumed it was Greelc.”


Near the Ooni’s palace is the Wunmonije Compound, where in 1938, a cache of wonderful copper-alloy heads was dug up, three with crowns. Another marvellous crowned head called Olokun was found in the Olokun Grove, used in rites honouring Olokun, goddess of the sea and patroness of bead-making. Some sculptures were brought to the Ooni’s palace for safekeeping, others actively preserved there for rituals.

In an “introduction” to the book accompanying the exhibition, Enid Schildkrout of the Museum of African Art, New York, points out: “Today, the rulers, divinities, deified ancestors, and even some of the animals depicted in Ife art are all still actively celebrated among [he Yoruba-speaking people in modern Nigeria and in the Yoruba Diaspora… The present ruler or OOHÍ of Ife… is the highest-ranking traditional ruler of the Yoruba people… Like his forbears, when he sits in state he wears a beaded crown and holds

Masterpieces by Ife sculptors of their kings and queens

a royal sceptre and whisk. Much of his regalia is similar to that worn by the two copper-alloy figures of an

Ooni in the exhibition… both [are] more than 700 years old.

“In Ife today, people worship at shrines dedicated to the same deities that are referred to in the ancient

city-state’s art… Some of the shrines are dedicated to healing; others are associated with particular deities who control certain spheres of activity, not only human but also tbe forces in nature… At festivals honouring past rulers, who are also, by definition, deities, participants

wear insignia and decorate their bodies in ways that re- semble numerous details of Ife’s ancient art.”

Kingdom oflfe: Sculptures from West Africa includes several important sculptures and objects highlighting

Ife’s relationship to other Nigerian and West African cultures. “The art of metal casting was passed on to the city-state of Benin, producing more stylised work. A late 15th century messenger figure wears a cross

around his neck signifying the connection be- tween Benin and Ife, the cross being a symbol

of cosmic order. He also has “cat-whisker” facial marks found in some Ife terracottas.

Two other massive and elaborate copper -alloy figures hail from Tadaon the Niger

River notth of Ife – a Male Figure has a pair of discs on his head featuring horned heads with ser- pents emerging from the nostrils, a motif found on sculpture from Ife, Owo and Benin. In this context, snakes express an

emanation of special spiritual energy {ase). The other figure is a superb Bowman from Jebba Island.

Yet none of them exude the refinement and sensitivity of the incomparable Ife metal sculptures. A terracotta figure from

Owo, southeast oflfe, does show how the naturalism charac- teristic of Ife art was also found in other major centres of art production in Nigeria. The face is striated, though not as finely carved as the parallel striation incising many Ife sculptures. These representations of scarification marks were markers of identity, signifying origin, status or membership of a certain organisation. Another theory is that they may represent the beaded veils that Yoruba rulers wore and still wear to conceal their faces on some ceremonial occasions.

It is fascinating how the art of Ife continues to relate to the lives of Nigerians today, as part of ongoing tradition, not just as relics of the past, but also in the form of fresh interpretations by contemporary Yoruba artists, speaking to a new audience of local patrons and international collectors. Also, works from ancient Ife have become iconic symbols of regional and national identity, and of pan-African consciousness. The Olokun head was chosen as the logo for the All-Africa Cames, and has been adapted as a “brand” icon by numerous educational and commercial institu- tions. Such images have become universal symbols of African heritage. The legacy oflfe has spread throughout the world. I

May 2010 HEW AFRICAN 117

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