The quality of the West African sculpture in the British Museum’s show is flabbergasting. About half way through the British Museum’s astounding ‘Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa’ we come across two small freestanding terracotta heads, each representing a victim of human sacrifice.
Made near the Atlantic coast of what is today Nigeria between 1100 and about 1400 AD, they are only around six inches in length and by no means the most sophisticated or refined works on view.
But look at them up close. The scarification marks on one head indicate that it represents a stranger, presumably a warrior captured in battle.
Yet the artist has gone to great lengths to show the victim’s physical suffering and mental anguish.
Both victims are gagged with a rope pulled so tightly through their mouth that their eyes bulge.
On each face the artist conveys the terror and violent struggle of a human being fully conscious that he is about to face ritual execution. These West African sculptors reveal an empathy with the ‘other’ that you only find in the art of highly advanced cultures.
It is a quality unknown (as far as I know) in the art of Mesoamerica or Central Africa, where captives are represented not as human beings but as generic types.
The Yoruba-speaking city state of Ife (pronounced Ee-fah) flourished as a cosmopolitan centre of trade and industry in the three centuries after 1100, its situation on the banks of the Niger River providing access to the busy trade routes that made it wealthy. Three hundred years before the arrival of Europeans at the end of the 15th century,
Ife was importing the copper and brass that enabled its artisans to cast bronze using the lost wax process.
The artist who in the early 14th century created the naturalistic bronze seated figure found in the village of Tada had an understanding of the musculature of the human body that would not be seen in European sculpture until Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti more than a century later. With a patterned sarong wrapped around his waist and tied with a tasselled sash, the plump figure is shown sitting with his left leg tucked under his raised right thigh.
The complex pose presents the sculptor with the challenge of representing a heavy man who has shifted most of his weight onto his left hip, throwing his body slightly off balance. When the sculptor had finished modelling the figure, it was then cast in pure copper. The result is a technical tour de force in which the smooth surface of the soft and sagging flesh is contrasted with the intricate detail of the textured cloth.
In the absence of written records, scholars can only guess why such works were made or what purpose they served. Many of the life size copper alloy heads in this show represent the Oomi (King) wearing a crown or diadem covered with beads.
All date from the end of the 14th or early 15th century and each one is so different from the others in bone structure and features that they must be portraits.
Most appear to be male, but others, like a crowned head in which striations from forehead to chin follow the contours of the face, look like either women or boys. Some were once polychromed, others retain traces of gold.
Those without crowns have holes at the forehead to attach real crowns of fibre and feathers to the head; in others the holes are at the mouth and jaw line to attach beaded veils that symbolised the ruler’s power to bless or curse.
In the early 15th century metal workers from Ife taught artisans working for the king of their country’s vassal state, Benin, the secrets of lost wax bronze casting.
A few late bronzes in this show remind us that Benin bronze sculpture was primarily associated with the court and royal palace. Benin figures tend to be highly stylised and are limited in subject matter to representations of the king, his warriors, messengers, and the animals sacred to them.
One of the most spectacular objects in the show, a full length standing figure of a bowman, feels to me closer in spirit to Benin than to Ife, for the pose is stiff and hieratic and the artist has made no attempt to animate or individualise the crudely scarified face. But the crisply cast details of his costume — the knife buried in his quilted tunic, the quiver on his back, the heavy anklets and amazing braided headdress — give the figure a precious, jewel-like quality I associate with courtly art, whether of Benin or Faberge.
By contrast Ife sculpture tends to be more naturalistic and to show people from every level of society, including the old and the sick.
Several terracotta fragments clearly represent limbs of those suffering from rickets or elephantiasis. Many of the female heads are so regal in bearing and serene in expression they must either represent queens or goddesses.
Even the scarification marks produced by chasing the surface of the bronze faces with a sharp tool enhances to their mysterious beauty.
This is the first show ever devoted to the sculpture of Ife anywhere in the world. The quality of the full length statues, portrait heads, ritual objects and vessels loaned by Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments is flabbergasting.
What can I say? Shows like this come along once in a lifetime.