The bronzes of Ife

Mark Hudson – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times
Two bronze heads stand on a table-top in a back room at the British Museum. Meticulously incised lines run down smooth, elegant features that exude a stylised, “Egyptian” serenity. Yet there is at the same time something startlingly realistic about these faces: the sense, caught in the subtle curve of a mouth or cheek, that these are real people, who walked the streets of the Nigerian city of Ife some 700 years ago.
When the German archaeologist Leo Frobenius set eyes on the first of these heads to be unearthed in 1910, its bronze features “of perfect mould”, he declared that he had seen the face of Poseidon, sea god of the ancient Greeks – proof, he claimed, of the existence of an African Atlantis. Nonsense, of course, and since their discovery in a series of remarkable finds in the early and mid-20th century the so-called “Ife heads” have attracted much rash speculation and many even rasher acts.
The controversial bronze head called ‘Olokun’, now considered to be an early 20th-century copy of a lost 14th-century original
There are only 20 of them in existence. Made between the 13th and early 15th centuries, using the lost-wax process, they challenge ideas about the primitivism of black Africa that are widely held even today. Who they represent – deities, kings or ordinary people – and why they were created remain mysterious. Several of them have been removed from Nigeria in dubious circumstances, others simply stolen (then returned); at least one is a fake.
Now 12 of these heads and one half-length figure are to be displayed at the British Museum, along with a wealth of terracotta sculpture, pottery and other objects, almost all of it lent by Nigeria’s Commission for Museums and Monuments. While much of the terracotta work is extraordinarily refined, it is the bronze heads that tug most at the imagination. Does their realism and technical sophistication provide evidence of links between tropical Africa and the ancient Mediterranean? Or was medieval Africa far more advanced than was previously imagined? As our views on Africa have developed over the past century, the political dimensions of such questions have been magnified.
A web of intrigue and controversy surrounds these extraordinary objects. It centres on the most famous of them, the Ori Olokun – the so-called Head of the Sea God – unearthed by Frobenius in 1910. A freebooting Indiana Jones figure, part visionary, part charlatan, Frobenius arrived in Ife, the spiritual capital of the Yoruba people, with the aim of finding evidence of a lost “white” African civilization. The Yoruba are Nigeria’s largest ethnic group, numbering some 35m. According to Yoruba beliefs, Ife is the place where the world began. While the city’s heyday lasted from 1000 to 1600AD, its ruler, the Oni of Ife, retains a degree of spiritual authority in beliefs that spread into the neo-African religions of the New World, including Voodoo and Santería.
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