Hype is beginning to build around the forthcoming exhibition “Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa”, which opens at the British Museum next Thursday, March 4th. Naijablog for example, points out the excellent review of the show by The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones You can also see a picture gallery of some of the scultures on display. Jeremy nevertheless feels it is problematic (I agree) to label Ife a “lost civilisation”: “What exactly is lost about Ife?The town is still there, the palace of the Ooni is still there, the Orunmila staff is still there. The only sense in which Ife is lost is that the city was at its cultural zenith many centuries ago. But would we describe Rome or Athens (for instance) in the same way? Its hardly Machu Picchu.”
Not a lost civilisation, but one that appears to be largely (almost completely?) unknown in Europe, even among those acquainted with art history. For this reason, I feel that the visibility which this exhibition can give to the artistic tradition of Ife – it is the first time some of these pieces are shown outside Nigeria – can only be a good thing.
And I have to say the exhibition is really worth it, and some of the exhibits trully impressive. I can say this because this exhibition – co-organised by the Spanish Fundación Marcelino Botín and the New York Museum for African Art, with the support, of course, of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (to which the pieces belong) – has already been on show in Spain – for once before the UK and the US.!! It was first in the Fundación Marcelino Botín in Santander during the summer, and then, from September to December in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, where I saw it.
Brass head with crown, Wunmonije Compound, Ife (early 14th century) Photograph: PR
The show in Spain – and in the US, but not in the UK – was called “Dinastía y divinidad: arte IFE en la antigua Nigeria”/ “Dinasty y divinity: IFE art in ancient Nigeria”, contained terracota sculpures, both figurative (humans and animals) and symbolic (post to signal shrines), and also metal pieces. These last ones were no doubt the most impressive. Among them, the ones that left a stronger imprint on my memory were the beatutifully sculpted copper aloy heads – many of which showed extremely delicate vertical lines – and which were prepared to “wear” crowns and/or other head dresses; the copper masks, including the famous Obalufon mask – reputedly, the only African mask obtained through the lost wak method; and, perhaps the most interesting one for me, the Tada Figure, a copper alloy, hollow cast, half-lifesize sculpture depicting a seating man.
Curators install a copper seated figure from the late 13th to early 14th century. Photograph: David Levene
For those having the opportunity, I really encourage you to visit the show, for the sculptures are stunning. Also, and I have mentioned before, these type of shows can help making African artistic traditions more known, and eventually traditions that will be admired and appreciated on its own terms, recognising their own history and influences, but not being immediately compared to European and non-African traditions, as a way of recognising their value. An example of the present situation is this review in a Spanish newspaper titled “The real Greeks of Black African art”, and in which the author traces the parallelism between Ife sculture and that of the “Middle East and Greece, whose models could perfectly reach the deepest and most remote heart of Africa”. While what the author wants to convey is a positive message about the artistic value of the sculptures and their conformity to “classic” representations of beauty, and while he also acknowledges the existence of autochtonous influences such as the Nok tradition, the constant comparison results inadequate. Or can we imagine a review of classic Greek sculptures titled “The real Egyptians of European art”, given that Egypt influenced Ancient Greece much more than it is usually acknowledged?
Cultures and artists all around the world have always been influenced both by previous local traditions, as well as those coming from other places; and the “the deepest and most remote heart of Africa” as this author calls it, is no exception to this. Only once this is recognised will African art – and by extension all things African – cease to be an “outsider” to the art (and world) history, a place with no history and where all (good) things have either an external origin (just as these sculptures were frst atributed to no other than the lost civilisation of the Atlantis!) or need to be associated with European and non-African influences in order to be awarded a value. Until we reach this point, at least in the case of the Ife art from the 12th to the 14th century, it appears that much archeological, historical and artistic work is still needed in order for this art to be fully comprehended.
For the time being however, one can only contemplate in admiration these extremely beautiful pieces. And in the case of the Spanish audience, be happy that for once, we have been able to admire this before anyone else (although, Spain is still Spain, and thus, when I went to buy the catalogue of the exhibition, I was told there were none on sale – they had sold out – and that in order to get them I had to phone! (not even a website) the Fundación Botin. Now, compare this with the more developed marketing strategy at the British Museum – where the catalogues have been on sale even before the exhibition opens!)
PS On the topic of African art and Spain, just yesterday, I discovered the Fundación Alberto Jiménez – Arellano Alonso, which is based in Valladolid, and apparently has the largest collection in Europe of African terracota sculpture! They’re also presenting the refurbishment of the whole collection, so will have to go and see it!!