15th c African (West) Ife Sculpture
(c. 1100 - c. 1600)
London. British Museum.
This amazingly naturalistic and classically beautiful bust is typical of a number of heads and figures done in terracotta, stone, bronze and copper that have been identified with the royal city of Ife. The art of Ife is considered to be one of the early examples of the art of the powerful Yoruba people, over five million strong, who dominate present day Nigeria and spread into Dahomey, Togo and Ghana.
When the life-like figures done in this elegant style first came to light in 1910 the German ethnographer Frobenius argued that they must have been products of the legendary Greek Atlantis, not believing that they could have been done by Africans. Subsequent discoveries have confirmed that they were, in fact, done by the highly skilled African craftsmen of the ancient Kingdom of Ife. The figures and heads found in Ife and its surroundings is generally dated from the 12th through the 16th century, but the dating is uncertain since no undisputed excavating has taken place, and the buried and reburied artifacts may even date from an earlier period.
The figures are cast in bronze using the sophisticated lost-wax technique in which a thin layer of wax is painted over a modeled ceramic core. Additional clay is put over the wax and when the piece is fired the wax melts. Molten bronze is then poured into the area vacated by the wax, and when the casting has cooled, the ceramic is broken away, leaving the thin-walled bronze casting. The technique used here shows a highly skilled artist. Other Ife bronzes, ceramic heads and figures and even some stone carvings all demonstrate the same naturalistic style and mastery of technique.
The ruler of the Ife state was known as the Oni, and the images are thought to represent the various Oni. Ancient myths speak of the shrine of Odudua, the spot where earth was first created from the primeval ocean. the priests preserved a relic of the creator god, Odudua's drum in ancient Ife, a relic which gave great significance to the city and its rulers. The magnificent bust shown here is said to represent Otokun, the first ruler of Ife and founder of the Yoruba Dynasty, a suggestion based on no documentary evidence, but whoever he was, he was certainly important.
IFE | Torso of an Ife King. | c. 1400-1500 | West African | Ife