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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Bronze Head from Ife

Arte yoruba, nigeria, testa da ife, 12-15mo secolo

Bronze Head from Ife

This Bronze Head from Ife is one of eighteen sculptures that were unearthed in 1938 at Ife in Nigeria, the religious and former royal centre of the Yoruba people.  Ife is regarded by the Yoruba people as the place where their deities created humans. It was made in the thirteenth century well before any European contact had taken place with the local population. The realism and sophisticated craftsmanship of the objects challenged Western conceptions of African art at the time.

The head is made using the lost wax technique and the artist designed the head in a very naturalistic style. The face is covered with incised striation, and the headdress consists of a crown composed of layers of tube-shaped beads and tassels. The kings crown is topped by a crest, with a rosette and a plume. The lifelike rendering of sculptures from mediaeval Ife is exceptional in sub-Saharan African art.

When the Ife heads first appeared in the Western World, experts did not believe that Africa had ever had a civilisation capable of creating artefacts of this quality. Later excavations in Nigeria have provided scientific evidence of the existence of a metalworking culture and bronze artefacts that may be dated to the ninth or tenth centuries.

Ife

The oldest signs of human settlement at Ife’s current site date back to the 9th century and its material culture includes terracotta and bronze figures. For centuries, various peoples from this region traded overland with traders from North Africa.  Ancient Ife also was famous for its glass beads which have been found at sites as far away as Mali, Mauritania, and Ghana. In the 16th century, Spanish and Portuguese explorers were the first Europeans to begin significant, direct trade with peoples of modern-day Nigeria. Europeans traded goods with peoples at the coast and this exchange marked the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade. The majority of those enslaved were captured in raids and wars.

Reflections

  • When the Ife heads first appeared in the Western World, why did the experts find it so hard to believe that Africa had ever had a civilisation capable of creating artefacts of this quality?
  • What belief systems today similarly blind us?
  • Created before any European contact, but lost after European contact, to be rediscovered less than 100 years ago, what does this tell us about the impact of slavery and colonialism?
  • Where the heads buried to protect them from coastal raids?

Explore

Bronze Head from Ife

  • Title:               Bronze Head from Ife
  • Date:               1300 C.E.
  • Culture:         Yoruba people, Nigeria
  • Find Spot:       Ife in Nigeria,
  • Materials:       Heavily leaded zinc-brass
  • Acquisition:   1939
  • Dimensions:  35 cm high
  • Museum:        The British Museum

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“In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams.”
– Nigerian proverb

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Photo Credit: 1) I, Sailko [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

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