Ife in All Its Glory

Article excerpt

Art connoisseurs in Britain and elsewhere are currently being treated to an exhibition of some of the finest art to have come from Africa, specifically from Ile-Ife in Nigeria. The exhibition, which runs till 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

The entrance room was dark; straight ahead was a dramatically lit crowned head of glowing copper. The impact was stunning--the head radiating divine energy, yet the sculpture was 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 w 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 the story 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 sophisticated 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. Almost 100 sculptures have been lent by Nigeria's National Commission for Museums & Monuments whose director-general, Dr Joseph Eboreieme, commented that although "some of these 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 rulership 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."

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The technological virtuosity of these sculptors created an impressive diversity of artworks, the most moving and exquisite of which are the portrait heads and human figures, mostly in copper 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 being expressive caricatures, others showing youth and old age or disease and deformity. Whereas the metal works convey serenity and self-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 Ife at that time.

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Such was the height of creative refinement, sensitivity and technical accomplishment of Ife art, that when Europeans first "discovered" it in the early 20th century, they could not believe that such "classical" work was of African origin, and assumed it was Greek. The 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 notable individual characteristics. They are icons of divine rulership, as well as expressions of the Yoruba belief in the divinity inherent in all living things, especially human beings.

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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 . …