Byline: Philip Hensher
Kingdom Of Ife: Sculptures From West Africa
British Museum, London until June 6 *****
I fe was a city-state in medieval West Africa, now Nigeria, and before the 20th Century only a very few of its objects had been brought to Europe. In 1910 the German explorer Leo Frobenius undertook a three-week visit, collecting a substantial number of objects from the civilisation for European collections.
In common with many European archaeologists of the time, he placed a mental upper limit on the potential skill of African artists. What he saw of Ife art was so extraordinarily skilful and expressive that he simply refused to believe that it was produced by Africans, suggesting that it was evidence of the lost Atlantis of the Greeks.
There is no doubt about it. Major finds since have been kept in Nigeria, and this marvellous exhibition is mostly made up of generous loans from Nigerian holdings.
(It is greatly to the credit of the British, I think, that they made strenuous efforts in the dying days of their colonial rule to keep Ife treasures from looters and collectors, and retain it in Nigerian public collections.) Ife was producing work in the early middle ages much more sophisticated than anything produced in the West at the time, or even in Byzantium.
The heads have a dignity and naturalistic quality which possess an almost speaking likeness. Often representing kings and queens, these sculptors attained an apparently universal language of stateliness and power.
There are a few trappings here - marks of ritual facial scarring, and occasional clothing and jewellery with evident cultural significance. But the expressive power lies in the serious, assured faces, which hold power over us, just as they must have done for the Ife.
The technical command of the artists extends to a skill in anatomy. A seated figure from the 13th to 14th Century is remarkable for its sense of how a wellfed body looks when seated - it would take Renaissance artists in Italy a couple of hundred years to attain the same skill and realism. …