Kingdom of Ife: sculptures from West Africa tells the story of the legendary city of Ife (pronounced ee-feh) through its refined and beautiful sculptures. The exhibition features more than 100 extraordinary bronze, terra-cotta, and stone sculptures, ranging in date from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries. Many of these have never been on display outside of Nigeria and have been drawn almost entirely from the collections of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.
From the 12th to the 15th centuries, Ife flourished as a powerful, cosmopolitan and wealthy city-state in West Africa, in what is now modern Nigeria. It was an influential centre of trade connected to extensive local and long-distance trade networks which enabled the region to prosper. During this period, artists at Ife created sculpture that ranks among the most aesthetically striking and technically sophisticated in the world. The highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in stone, terracotta, brass and copper-alloy is in a style unlike any in Africa at the time. The human figures portray a wide cross-section of Ife society and include depictions of youth and old age, health and disease, suffering and serenity. The almost pure copper mask of Obalufon II, an early Ooni (king) of Ife is one of the finest images of royal power from Ife.
Today, the city of Ife is still a spiritual heartland for the 29 million Yoruba people living in Nigeria and countless descendants in the Americas and elsewhere in the world. The present Ooni, or traditional ruler, of Ife, His Royal Majesty Alayeluwa Oba Okunade Sijuwade, Olabuse II, heads one of the longest surviving monarchies in the world. Some of the objects in the exhibition, including a copper mask said to represent the fourteenth-century ruler Obalufon II, were kept in the Ooni’s palace until the 1950s, when they were transferred to the Nigerian Department of Antiquities for purposes of conservation, study, and display.
According to Yoruba myth, Ife was the centre of the creation of the world and all mankind. Ife was home to many sacred groves located in the city’s forests. Two groves in particular have revealed numerous sculptures: the Ore Grove with its stone monoliths, human and animal figures and the Iwinrin Grove which is associated with terracotta heads and fragments from life-size figures.
Other sites have revealed spectacular pieces with royal associations including the only known complete king figure and an exquisite terracotta head, possibly portraying a queen both from Ita Yemoo. A terracotta elephant and a hippopotamus head lavishly adorned with beaded regalia come from the royal burial site of Lafogido.
Some of its shrines and groves are still in use and rituals to key gods are performed regularly. Works of art from Ife have become iconic symbols of regional and national unity, and of pan-African identity.
The exhibition catalogue has been written by Henry John Drewal, Evjue-Bascom Professor of Art History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Adjunct Curator of African Art at the University’s Chazen Museum of Art, with an introductory essay by Enid Schildkrout, Chief Curator and Director of Exhibitions and Publications at the Museum for African Art. Published in both English and Spanish editions, it has 200 pages and 147 illustrations.
British Museum Website