Kingdom of Ife Exhibition – Sculptures from West Africa
Published 26 April 2010
Having a deep affection for West African art, it is understandable that after seeing the posters all around London for the British Museum’s new exhibition, I became very excited. However, when at last I found the time to visit the museum, I left the exhibition with the feeling of slight frustration.
Kingdom of Ife, Sculptures from West Africa – is the grand name for the exhibition. Even if one does not know the art of Ife, when an exhibition includes sculptures, one would expect a spacious and reasonably bright room for the objects to be exposed, enabling visitors to admire them from every angle. Contrary to this, I found myself in a barely lit, dim and crowded room, where most of those uniquely beautiful brass, copper, stone and terracotta objects were almost impossible to admire properly as they were covered by the display cabinets themselves. Covered not only from the back, the sculptures’ profiles were also disturbed by a kind of bizarre column placed into the two sides of each cabinet. In addition, the colour of the textile used does not help to emphasize the texture of the metal objects either. As a result of a relatively small and crowded space, these strong feminine and masculine featured sculptures – typical of the art of Ife – simply are not shown at their best.
Putting aside the negatives, the exhibition gives a great overview of the history and artistic legacy of the Kingdom of Ife. There are many uncertainties regarding the origin and function of the objects, but the accompanying descriptions manage to bring them alive for the ordinary layman. Ife, kingdom and city of the Yoruba people, was situated in present day southwestern Nigeria. It is regarded by the Yoruba as the legendary birthplace of humanity and even today it is still an important religious center. Between 700 and 900 A.D., Ife began to develop as a major artistic center and became known worldwide for its naturalistic bronze, stone and terracotta sculptures. From an artistic point of view, the 13th to 15th centuries were the golden years in the history of the Kingdom, and that period was followed by a strong decline due to the emergence of neighbouring Benin.
Besides the terracotta & bronze heads, stone sculptures, stools & religious pieces carved in quartz, statues of animals and humans are also represented in the exhibition. According to some specialists many of these can be seen as idealized portraits of certain dignitaries. The bronze heads were cast by the so-called lost wax casting technique which enables the artist to produce incredibly chiselled pieces. One of the main characteristics of their outstanding style & craftsmanship is the use of facial striates. Many of the heads` faces are covered with parallel lines of which the meaning is still unknown to us, but it is definitely effective in giving the sculpture dimension, and to emphasise the beauty of its features. The holes placed around the lips, lower jaw, and on the top of the head might have contained beads and different ornaments to adorn the sculptures, but since these accessories have withered away over time, it is also only an assumption.
The British Museum has managed to compile a really attractive program package connected to the exhibition and to West African culture in general. Forthcoming events include ceramic, jewellery and textile workshops, film screenings, gallery talks, and even a conversation with the winner of the Noble Prize in literature, Wole Soyinka himself! A kind of closing event will be the celebration of the African diaspora on 22nd of May, with the afternoon’s program arranged around the Yoruba culture, religion and mythology, focusing on its influence on Cuba, Haiti and Brazil.
Exhibition Dates: 4 March – 6 June 2010
Opening Times: Open daily from 10:00am to 5:30pm, with late night openings on Thursday & Fridays
Venue: British Museum, Great Russell Street, WC1B 3DG
Exhibition ticket prices: £8 (adults), £7 (16-18 year old discount), £7 (for students, unemployed, and disabled), £6.50 (for groups 8+ Monday to Fridays), £4 (art fund member), kids under 16 go free, and free entry for British Museum members.
For information about related events, tickets, and opening times, please visit www.britishmuseum.org