THE HEADS OF AFRICA; Figures Brought from the Lost Kingdom of Ife Are Reminiscent of Renaissance Portraiture -- If Only We Knew More of Their Origins; EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK

The Evening Standard (London, England), March 11, 2010 | Go to article overview

THE HEADS OF AFRICA; Figures Brought from the Lost Kingdom of Ife Are Reminiscent of Renaissance Portraiture -- If Only We Knew More of Their Origins; EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK


Byline: Brian Sewell

THE KINGDOM OF IFE: SCULPTURES FROM WEST AFRICA British Museum, WC1 IKNEW nothing of the Kingdom of Ife in what is now Western Nigeria, until the British Museum's catalogue of its new exhibition under that title dropped onto my doormat. Of neighbouring Benin and its bronzes I knew the little that every man knows, but of Ife nothing -- not even the name and where that little nation was. This I imagine to be the case for most of us, but it is not quite the same as knowing nothing about Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Velazquez and the whereabouts of Rome, Amsterdam and Madrid (though that appalling level of ignorance now seems the not uncommon consequence of an education system that produced Jade Goody and her ilk), and I take some small comfort from a sentence early in the opening essay of the catalogue. "There are," the writer tells us, "so many unanswered questions concerning the dawn of West Africa's great artistic traditions that we can only hope that, sometime in the near future, serious research and international efforts to conserve the heritage will help us to answer them." She then implies that thefts, illegal excavations and dispersals to collections far afield have all contributed to our present ignorance -- though the natural paucity of survivals through local causes must surely be the prime cause -- and that this exhibition is a belated (my word) device to encourage the protection of this cultural property. I am compelled to observe, however, that the unhappy history of sub-Saharan artefacts in the later 20th century has been brought about largely by the anxious willingness of African politicians and panjandrums to exploit the diplomatic bag and fuel the market.

Of the 109 exhibits, 95 come from Ife -- the rest are from Benin and other centres distant by 100 kilometres and more, and significantly different in style and mannerism. Myth has it that Ife is where the world began, that it was a place of deities, ancestors and kings, yet the earliest date we tentatively have for it as a flourishing holy city is AD 1100-1200, the century of Henry I, Stephen and the dread Matilda, Henry II and Richard the Lionheart. Which was the more civilised society? There can be little doubt that the ritual practices of Ife, human sacrifices among them we suppose, were intimately connected with the little that survives of "art", but were the many reliquaries of Thomas Becket any less superstitious in their origin and purpose? We have the advantage of looking back over an albeit interrupted continuum of Celtic and Roman art and other cultural influences, and forward to the Renaissance and all that stemmed from it, but the artefacts of Ife seem not only to have sprung from nothing, but swiftly to have returned to it within, at most, the period of some four centuries that in Europe lie between the Bayeux Tapestry and Leonardo's Mona Lisa. European knowledge of the artefacts of Ife reaches back no more than a century. Leo Frobenius, a German ethnographer, was first to take an interest in them, in 1911, and foolishly took them to be evidence that Ife was the lost land of Atlantis. The earliest systematic excavations were not carried out until 1953 and further scholarly investigations have been scattered and spasmodic; of accidental finds there is no reliable estimate or record, but they seem to have been very few when compared with the pillaging of sites in Europe and the Near East. The catalogue writers are skilled in description and offer what they can in explanation of chronology, purpose, decoration, embellishment and technique, but such phrases as "may have represented", "may signify", "may indicate", "may depict", "was probably", "another scholar believes" and "said to represent" litter the text and act as caveats against acceptance.

For my part I can only look at these heads, figures, fragments and animals in much the same way as I look at their European equivalents. I cannot -- as an art historian should -- put them in their wider cultural contexts of religion and liturgical practice, politics and commerce, and know nothing of associated rituals and purposes, nor of the patronage that brought them into being. …

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