I do not dabble often in African art. However, I haven’t written a post in a few weeks and so snagged a randomly-purchased-at-a-yard-sale book on African art on my way out the door today. Honestly, the visual arts of Africa never truly captured my imagination. Marcel Griaule wrote that it ”…is beyond our horizons. It is steeped in a climate of which we have no experience, and about which, in spite of appearances, we have only minimum factual data…” (Folk Art of Black Africa, 1950, pg. 16). So much of African art is intricately tied to a lifestyle and belief system to which I have no connection, and so its impact (after, of course, the first-impression intrigue) shrivels and slides away quickly.
However, this was not the case today. I was flipping through my second-hand copy of A Short History of African Art by Werner Gillon when a particular image caught my eye:What a head! And the kicker: this is dated between 12-15th century. This is a rare feat of sculptural realism in pre-colonial Africa. This discovery felt like a whack on the head, and I could not ignore it. So begins my exploration into the Yoruba people and the arts of the great city of Ife!
A FEW HISTORICAL/CULTURAL NOTES
1. According to legend, Olorun (who was the God of the Sky) sent Odudua to create the world. Odudua “made [the city of Ile-Ife] the heart of Yoruba kingship and the seat of the Oni, who was the religious head of all Yoruba people.” 2
2. There was a violent civil war between the supporters of Obatala (a religious icon/deity for the indigenous people) and those of Odudua (an opposing deity from a new dynastic group). At the end of this war, King Obalufon II reigned, and he is credited with negotiating peace between the feuding parties.1
3. To help reunite the people, King Obalufon II developed a new city plan for Ife. He oversaw the refurbishment and construction of many temples that honored the chiefs from both of the feuding parties. It is believed that “Ife’s ancient art works likely functioned as related temple furnishings.” 1 In other words, King Obalufon II became a patron of the arts in order to preserve peace and ensure a better future for his people. Right on, King O. Right. On.
WORKING WITH THE MATERIALS
The bronze and terracotta sculptures of Ife are renowned, and it was a discovery by German Africanist Leo Frobenius that truly brought the Yoruba art to the eyes of the modern world. Frobenius acquired several pottery and bronze sculptures in 1910 that were in a “naturalistic style atypical of West African art.”2 In fact, the Europeans had a hard time believing the Yoruba people had created the pieces:
Coaxing copper is not an easy feat. It is a complicated and dangerous process, and the ancient Yoruba seemed to have a knack for it. Indeed four head sculptures have been discovered that were cast in 96.8-99.7% copper, an achievement that alluded the artists of ancient Greece, Rome, China, and even sculptors during the Italian Renaissance.1
“All of these objects were of great classical beauty; and Frobenius believed that what he had discovered were the works of Greeks from the lost colony of Atlantis…The bronze head was found in the grove of Olokun, the Yoruba goddess of the sea, and Frobenius was convinced that Olokun was, in fact, Poseidon. Others concluded, like Frobenius, that these objects could not be African but must be the work of Greeks, Romans or even Dynastic Egyptians.”2
The purity of the copper also affects the overall color that may signify the individual’s status in the ancient Ife society. Heads with pure copper are more red than those heads that incorporate alloys (generally about 68.8-79.8% copper1); the alloyed copper gives the head a yellow hue. The red color is associated with danger and heightened potency. It was a greater struggle to create the pure copper heads, and this artistic struggle reflects the subject’s value: “the material feature, in short, also gives them special iconic power. The use of nearly pure copper in these works suggests not only how knowledgeable Ife artists were in the materials and technologies of casting, but also how willing they were to take related risks to achieve specific visual and symbolic ends in these works.”1 The technical skill and formal similarities of these sculptures leaves scholars debating whether or not these masterpieces were created by one artist or by several artists in one generation.1
THE HEAD, THE FACE
The Yoruba believe that the body is divided into three principal parts: the head, trunk, and legs.1 Many full-body sculptures from the city of Ife have enlarged heads, having a roughly 1:4 ratio with the rest of the body. Scholars say that this privileged body part is “…a symbol of ego and destiny (orí), personality (wú), essential nature (iwà), and authority (àse).”1 aThere are various theories concerning the markings on some head sculptures. Vertical lines on a terracotta visage “appears to reference Ife royals (as well as other elites) and ideas of autochthony more generally.”1 (See Photo 1) This sort of marking can be seen in other African art traditions as well. However, it appears that only 50% of such terracotta heads are marked this way, and this stylistic change seems due to the turbulent political climate.
Ife King Obalufon II, as mentioned above, was a patron of the arts, and he commissioned many of the sculptures. Sculptures that represented elites from the first dynasty (before King Obalufon II) were marked with the traditional vertical lines, but the king eventually banned such practices in his domain. From then on, sculptures (especially those representing individuals after the first dynasty) did not have vertical facial markings so as “to cover one’s historical family and dynastic identity for reason of political expediency.”1 By waving away this claim to identity, the king attempted to loosen the grip that the feud held on people of Ife.
In addition to the oh-so-controversial thin, vertical lines of the elite, some heads show thick vertical lines (See Photo 2):
Several life-sized metal heads feature holes around the beard line (See Photo 3). Scholars believe that the Yoruba would use these holes to attach artificial beards made of beads or hair to the faces. Twentieth-century Yoruba art use beards to identify important individuals, and it is likely that the facial hair played a similar role for ancient artists. These beard holes are present on all plain-faced heads, but such markings are rarely found on the ancient striated faces. Thus, the presence of a beard may mark certain individuals as having power or status different from those who sport vertical lines. Suzanne Blier, a professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard, has a guess as to why:
“These marks seems to depict individual participating in rituals in which blister beetles or leaves…were employed to mark the face with short-term patterns on the skin…These temporary “marks” may have served as references to first dynasty elites or their descendants during certain life rituals…Interestingly, sculptures depicting these thick lines characteristically show flared nostrils and furled brows, suggesting the pain that accompanied facial blistering practices such as these.”1
“The non-bearded heads conceivable reference ritual status and sacral [power consistent with Obatala lineages today; the bearded heads instead seem to convey ideas of lineage leadership and political status consistent with the center’s new rulership line.”
One of the heads has black and red lines around the eyes, and it is said that such decoration identifies someone who “‘can really see,’ i.e., a person with unique access to the supernatural power that imbues one with spiritually charged insight.”1
Some heads also feature creases or rings around the neck. Even today the Yoruba consider such a feature as attributes of beauty (See Photo 4).
Many of these sculptures have headware that carries just has much symbolic baggage as facial decoration. The higher the better, but let’s not leave it at that. The shape of a crown diadem and the number of beaded rows can indicate differences in rank and position.1 Rosette designs accompany individuals who were affiliated with the first dynasty:
“These rosettes suggest the importance of plants (flowers), and the primacy of ancient land ownership and gods to the Obatala group.”1
The number of petals on the rosette has weight, as well. Eight is considered the highest number accorded to humans, whereas sixteen is number of the gods.1 Therefore, eight-petal rosettes are associated with higher-ranked Obatala leaders, but sixteen-petaled designs are reserved for a deity figure.1
Some heads wear diadems of concentric circles. Such an accessory references political figures of the new Odudua dynasty. Indeed, a large concentric circle design is displayed on the iron gates outside of the Ife palace today.
These ancient Yoruba artists created incredible sculptures with techniques ahead of their time, and I need to find my own personal King Obalufon II. Hooray African art!
1. Blier, Suzanne Preston. “Art in Ancient Ife, Birthplace of the Yoruba.” african arts 45, no. 4 (2012): 70-85.
2. Gillon, Werner. A Short History of African Art. Penguin Books:New York: 1991. Chapter Eleven.