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Feature:THE BIG PICTURE - Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa at the British Museum

Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa

Published: 25 March 2010

AN exquisite copper bust is still helping to redefine what is known about African art,  72 years after its “discovery” by Europeans. It was a decade later that the British Museum first put on show the finds, which caused such a sensation, from the legendary city-state of Ife in what is modern Nigeria.

With Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa, which runs at the museum until June, it revisits work from the area regarded by many as the birthplace of some of the highest achievements of Africa’s art and culture.

What is remarkable about the copper head (left) is not only its naturalism and quality but also that it is dated to the late 1300s or early 1500s, when Ife, a spiritual centre for the Yoruba people, was a major cosmopolitan trading centre.

The copper head was discovered in the Wunmonije Compound where 18 lifelike sculptures of brass/copper alloy heads were unearthed by builders in 1938. They are believed to be associated with coronations or succession rituals of new rulers of Yoruba city-states and likely to have been from a single workshop.

In the late 1940s some were exhibited in London but the current show features more than 100 pieces, most of which have not been seen in the UK before and all but two of which are from Nigeria’s national collection.

Ife to the Yoruba was the centre of the creation of the world and sacred groves in its surrounding forests have revealed numerous sculptures, including stone figures and monoliths, depictions of crocodiles, monkeys, chameleons, humans and a number of terracotta heads. They reveal a glimpse of a little-known history. 

Together with the deification of rulers there is evidence of sacrifices, with gagged victims shown awaiting execution and even a bracelet of vultures pecking at bound victims. But there is also an unusual sculpture of a victim of elephantiasis, with swollen testicles and cut marks on his back, believed to be the wounds made by the medics treating him.

Curator Enid Schildkrout said it was amazing to see the Ife treasures together in a show, rather than as isolated pieces. She said: “There’s never been an exhibition all from Ife – which begins to give a picture of what this culture was like.”

Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa,  sponsored by Santander and The AG Leventis Foundation, is at the British Museum until June 6. Admission £8, concessions available.



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