FOR MANY PEOPLE FROM AFRICA AND ITS DIASPORA (recent or ancient) living in the UK and the West, the current exhibition of Ife art at the British Museum and wherever it goes is most welcome as it is an opportunity for a re-connection with African sensibilities and also much-needed evidence of African cultural achievement. Historian Robin Walker (author of When We Ruled) refers to the exhibition as excellent: "The art pieces are amazing and are well presented with the appropriate level of dignity," Walker said.
For the public at large, it is an opportunity to come to terms with the extent to which an African civilisation perfected techniques of casting and depicting human and abstract forms to levels that were in some cases ahead of European know-how. One hopes that at some point some of these ideas will filter through the curriculum of schools in both Africa and globally to create a more informed knowledge of human development.
Art pieces or statuary are condensed records and can provide an insight into the sophistication of a civilisation through revealing, for example, the ideas, philosophies, social values, etc, held by that society. Additionally, such artefacts are great barometers of the technological skills and competence within a society.
In effect, art is a combination of technology, skills, and ideas and is useful for clues on politics, economics and social relations. For example, the stool from Ife (see photo overleaf), measuring 21 inches in height and dating broadly from the 12th to 15th centuries, is sculpted from one solid piece of quartz. The Ooni of Ife, Adelekan Olobushe, gave this item as a gift to a British colonial official in 1896. Appreciating the object in full should lead us to ask, among other questions, what kinds of equipment did the artist use? Was such technology also deployed in the making of other utilities? Was the stool ornamental, functional or both, was it used on special occasions, etc?
It was not often easy for some European scholars to accept that such knowledge existed in Africa and they often ascribed such sophistication to some lost European tribe or saw them as mere flukes. Perhaps one of the best-known of these was the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius, who on visiting Nigeria and seeing the original copy of the Olokun (goddess of the sea) piece--called this because it was found in the Olokun Grove--believed he had come across art from Atlantis, the lost continent. He stated without any sense of irony that he could not see any connection between these sophisticated works and the local people. To the credit of the current Ife exhibition, it juxtaposes images of contemporary Ife life with the works and discusses issues in ways that show a continuous link between these and the ideas expressed in the pieces.
Sadly, no African museum is included on the exhibition's tour schedule to inspire young people in Africa. Is this because there are no museums in Africa which can take this exhibition? Surely inter-African cultural dialogue is also important? There is no gainsaying that access to such exhibitions in Africa could be useful for inspirational and other reasons.
A substantial part of this exhibition is made up of objects on loan from the Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Monuments and there are both planned and ongoing training and infrastructure development programmes arranged between Britain and Nigeria. According to Jonathan King, who runs the British Museum's Africa, Oceania and Americas section: "We want to build bridges and partnerships that last. It's important to say that we organise exhibitions, we share knowledge and information and we want to learn about our partners from other cultures." There are many commentators, both African and European, who are sceptical about this but dialogue is essential for any form of progress or adjustment in the modern world. …