Looking at Art

A Head of Its Time

How a 500-year-old portrait sculpture made in what is now Nigeria changed the way people think about African art.

A copper head dated from the late 14th to the early 16th century is thought to represent a venerable person in the Ife kingdom.

A copper head dated from the late 14th to the early 16th century is thought to represent a venerable person in the Ife kingdom.


Is it a man or a woman? Many basic facts are still unknown about a strikingly naturalistic copper head in a new exhibition showcasing the artistic achievements of the Ife (pronounced EE-fay) kingdom in what is now Nigeria.

The head was found by workers digging a house foundation in the city of Ife in 1938; two gashes made by their pickaxes are visible on the left cheek and skull. It was part of a cache of 17 copper and brass sculptures buried behind a now-rebuilt palace complex in Ife. The head probably dates from between the late 14th century and the early 16th, when Ife’s cultural influence extended over much of the lower Niger River basin. The kingdom owed its power largely to its sophisticated metalworking technologies, with which artisans made weapons, farm implements, and dazzling artistic objects, including effigies of their rulers, of which this may be one.

“It represents somebody of great status, if not a ruler,” says Julie Hudson, coordinator of the Africa program at the British Museum in London, the latest stop for the show, which was curated by Enid Schildkrout of New York’s Museum for African Art, in collaboration with the Fundación Marcelino Botí­n in Spain. Scholars have not yet determined whether the portrait represents an actual individual or an idealized archetype, but Hudson believes it depicts a real person. “Every single head in the hoard has a distinctive, different personality, and for that reason I think it’s likely that they were based on individuals,” she explains.

Made of pure copper using the lost-wax technique and slightly larger than life-size, the head has a line of holes along the edge of its scalp that may have held a crown of some kind, possibly made of an organic material such as straw that has since disintegrated. The crown likely included glass beads&mdashIfe had well-developed glass industries. The vertical striations covering the face give it a richly tactile quality. They may represent a type of scarification common in West Africa until recently, says Hudson. Yet even if the grooves were simply an artistic choice&mdashwhich may be the case, she says&mdashthe facial sculpting is of astonishing quality. “The bone structure is very sensitively modeled,” says Hudson. The fleshy creases in the elongated neck are popularly associated even today in West Africa with a good diet, prosperity, and status, says Florence Elumade, a conservator at the National Museum in Lagos who is working with the British Museum on the show.

“Most likely the head was attached to a mannequin made of wood and displayed that way,” says Elumade. The holes in the neck might have been used to attach the head to its body.

Ife has long confounded outside interpreters. When a German ethnologist came across a group of Ife terra-cotta busts a century ago, he was so convinced that Africans couldn’t have made such refined art that he theorized the busts were made by lost peoples of Atlantis. The heads he found are now in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. The copper head and later finds, including an intact terra-cotta head found by two schoolboys in a rain gutter in the late 1960s, shook Western notions about the quality of metalworking and artistic production in precolonial Africa, says Hudson. Scholars had believed Ife art’s distinctively naturalistic style was influenced by Greek and Roman sculpture, but recent research shows it developed independently. “Ife really forced a change in the way people began thinking about African art. It made people look a lot harder at their assumptions,” she says. New research also suggests that Ife artisans made the heads before they had any knowledge of European metallurgical techniques, though the copper itself may have come from the Mediterranean coast.

The show also includes a sculpture of a seated figure, likewise in pure copper and, judging from its style and workmanship, almost certainly made in Ife. Yet the piece was found more than 100 miles away from Ife, in the village of Tada, on the banks of the Niger. This find showed that along with Ife’s political and economic influence, says Hudson, its artistic influence spread over a vast area. “What we don’t know is whether there were itinerant artisans, or if there was an artistic center where the works were made and from there circulated elsewhere. In a way, we know that we know very little. But we are edging slowly forward.”

“Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa” is on view at the British Museum in London from March 4 through June 6. It will be presented as “Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria” at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts from September 19 through January 2; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from February 25, 2011, through May 22, 2011; and the Indianapolis Museum of Art from July 10, 2011, through October 9, 2011. It will be the inaugural show in the new building of the Museum for African Art in New York, from November 11, 2011, through April 8, 2012.

Roger Atwood has been a reporter and critic for ARTnews since 1999.

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