Visiting the Kingdom of Ife at the British Museum

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 Copper seated figure, Tada, Ife. Late 13th-14th century.  © Karin L. Willis/Museum for African Art/National Commission for Museums and Monuments, NigeriaWhen Nigeria appears on the news, it is too often for internet scams or identity fraud perpetrated on unsuspecting victims thousands of miles away. But the new exhibition at the British Museum brings to the public a very different side to Nigerian culture: the Kingdom of Ife.

These remarkable and beguiling statues that date from the 14th and 15th centuries rival contemporary European art at a time when Leonardo de Vinci was mesmerizing Europe and Moctezuma’s treasures were wowing the Spanish Conquistadors; indeed, they are of an elegance and sophistication so great that when they were discovered by Europeans at the beginning of the 20th century, it was believed they must have been brought to the area by a superior culture – some even suggested  these figures were evidence of the lost city of Atlantis!


It was nothing of the sort, of course. On the contrary, these serene heads, some cast in brass or copper, and the terracotta figures depicting both ceremonial and ordinary — even comic — figures, are the work the ancestors of the Yoruba people, now one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa, and of what later became the Republic of Benin – there are also three bronze statues brought from Benin, later in date but distinctly influenced by the earlier Ife culture. Ife was believed to be the centre of the creation of the world, and of all mankind; even now it is regarded as the spiritual heartland from which the current King of Benin still derives his authority. Legend tells how the supreme deity Olodumare instructed his son Orisanla to create solid land over earth’s primordial waters; but Orisanla got drunk and fell asleep on  the job. His younger brother Oduduwa discovered him and took on the task himself by throwing down soil from a snail shell and then setting a five-toed chicken onto it, to scatter the soil across the water where it formed land. Thus, Oduduwa became the first king of Ife, the spot where he descended to earth from the heavens above.

Sitting on the banks of the Niger, Ife had access to vital trade routes throughout West Africa, connecting the city state to major trading networks that linked the forest zone to the hub of major, including trans-Saharan, trading networks in West Africa.  All the metal used for casting the objects on display at the British Museum must have been brought in from elsewhere as there are no natural metal resources in the region and thus, again, evidence of the city- state’s extensive trade connections responsible for its enormous influence and wealth. Why this trade should suddenly cease is, as yet, unknown but cease it did in the 16th century when sea trade became more important.  Ife reached its peak during the 12th-15th centuries, a diverse and cosmopolitan city with evidence of metal-working – producing works of great intricacy and delicacy – as well as glassmaking and sculptural art, often for ritual or other ceremonial purposes rather than simply as objects of art. Certainly, the level of craftsmanship evident in the artefacts in the exhibition demonstrates a level of ability far superior to anything previously imagined.

Brass figure of an Ooni (king) of Ife. Ita Yemoo, Ife. Late 13th-early 15th century.  © National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.

Entering the exhibition, the warm, dark red of the backdrop evokes the deep, dark colour of the African soil and the heat of the African sun. Set within glass cabinets, the elegantly ornate heads can be seen from all angles allowing the viewer to marvel at the intricate detail of the beaded headdresses and the calm, intelligent features of the faces, rejoicing in their naturalistic style. The disembodied brass and copper heads are almost life-sized. The head in Ife culture represents both the spiritual and the actual being, thus the rather fine but diminutive figure that boasts a head disproportionate in size to its body signifies that this is a depiction of an Ooni, or king (see left).

Head called “Olokun”, Olokun Grove, Ife. Probably an early 20th-century copy of the original from 14th-early 15th century, copper alloy.  © Karin L. Willis/Museum for African Art/Nigerian National Commission for Museums and MonumentsThe exquisite head of Olokun, now believed to be a replica of that found in 1910 by the German ethnographer Leo Frobenius, shows the typical striations on the face and the ornate headgear of a king. Similiar striations can also be seen on the late 14th-early 16th century copper head (illustrated here), this time showing little holes along the hairline (see illustration) that are typical of the heads produced at this time. Attention to detail is revealed in not only the expensive pieces such as the beautiful dignified sculpted heads in moulded brass or the serene, life-like sitting copper figure (his arms and one leg now missing, see illustration), but also in the terracotta representations that are of special importance in that they depict many aspects of real life: sickness (a staggeringly graphic terracotta figure of a man suffering from elephantiasis) and in health, in youth and old age, even comic pieces (spot the face with the big ears!). They also portrayed animals: there is a huge granite and iron mud-fish, not a particularly alluring beast but significant in Ife culture. Its ritual name is eja ajabo that means ‘fish that fights for its life’, due to its unusual life cycle: the mud fish hibernates throughout the dry season but when it rains, it springs back to life, hence its apparent ability to be reborn, and earning itself significance as a sacrificial offering.

It is impossible to convey the sheer beauty of the figures on display in this special exhibition at the British Museum, so I do urge you, if you have the chance, to see them for yourself.

Kingdom of Ife, 4 March-6 June 2010 at the British Museum