Updated: May 7
We do not know his name, but his dignity still speaks volumes. This sculpted brass head is that of an Ooni, the crowned ruler of the kingdom of Ifé in southwestern Nigeria, and ruler of all 16 branches of the Yoruba, now some 44 million people. It is said that the gods who created the Ifé people came down to earth in Ilé Ifé, and the Ooni is their descendant. The crown shown here is made to represent the red beads that the Ifé people were famous for making and trading. The holes around the upper lip and chin were perhaps there to hold a ceremonial beard also made of their famous glass beads (several were found remaining in the holes). It could, however, have been a glass bead covering for the mouth, similar to the scarves the modern Ooni covers his mouth with. By tradition the Ooni speaks very little, for everything he says, by definition, is a promise. The openings in the neck suggest that the head could be attached to a wooden effigy which would be richly dressed for ceremonial purposes. This Ooni lived in the 1300s, and the sculptor who made this head is referred to as the African "Donatello."
The British invasion of Benin in 1897 discovered the Benin Plaques, bronze sculpture of high quality in a highly stylized realism that shocked the colonials. All kinds of theories abounded to explain away this African craftsmanship. Maybe it was the Portuguese who had made them? Was it some wanderer who managed to cross the Sahara and the tropical rain forests to bring this knowledge? Were these people part of a lost tribe of Israel? Or were they survivors of the Greek version of Atlantis?
No, the people of Benin said. The casting of metals came with Oranmiyan, a warrior prince who founded their royal dynasty. He had brought horses and bronze casting all the way from Ilé Ifé around 1200 A.D. He is celebrated in sculptures like the one we see here. Despite the original desire to deny the talent and originality of the people of Benin, in 1938 in an excavation behind the royal palace in Ilé Ifé, 17 bronze and brass sculpted heads were discovered. The key piece was that of the head of the Ooni seen above. The brass casting is superbly done using the lost wax technique. Its excellence came as a shock to Westerners and proved that the stories of how the people of Benin learned to cast metal were true, as the Ifé heads date from between the 12th to the 15th centuries, long before there was any contact with Europeans, but when the Ifé had made contact with Benin.
Bronze was not the only material used for sculpting in Ifé. Very find terracotta heads have also been found, like this one of Lajuwa, the most fabled royal servant ever. He was famous for assuming the identity of his master by concealing the ruler's death, and wearing his clothes and crown. Of course he was finally discovered and beheaded, but somehow Lajuwa has become the "patron saint" of servants, perhaps as a warning to their employers.
What I most love about this piece is the rather cheeky hint of a smile, with one side of his mouth turning upwards. He looks appealingly sly. The other thing I love is that the terracotta works are thought to have been done by women, as it is the women who work in terracotta making pottery, including gigantic pots.
Not all of the Ifé sculptures show faces with ritual scarification. The type of scarification seen on the head at the top of this page can be seen on some modern day Yoruba people, so we know that it exists and not just as a fanciful decoration on a sculpture. It is thought that the scaring or non-scaring of the face was a way to distinguish two branches of the royal family. One of the other questions about these metal sculptures was where did they get their metal. The people of Benin in the 16th century and later got their metal often from Portuguese traders. However, the Ifé were sculpting in bronze and brass long before that. As it turns out the desert sands to the north held the remains of a camel caravan that dated from around 1200 A.D. Among its trade goods were rods of brass of the type used by the Ifé to make their sculptures. I wonder how far away from Ifé one might have found their famous glass beads?
More recently the controversy over art taken from its origins by colonial pillagers was inflamed when Damien Hurst did a few take offs on the Ifé heads as part of his Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable in the Venice Biennale, 2017. People who see the Hurst work don't think of medieval Nigeria; in fact, it has been hypothesized that Hurst's work, which takes the classical Nigerian art completely out of context, may distort the view of the original art to the point of assuming credit for the look of the art since the originals are not well known. This, along with the use of the real bust of Nefertiti attached to a mannequin's body at the Venice Biennale in 2003, has furthered the demands by countries in Africa to have their treasures returned.
When I think of these sculptures, I think of a video I saw a few years ago when I first learned of these beautiful pieces. The art historian who was narrating the story of the Ifé Heads talked of the marvelous creativity that appeared in Ifé in the times when these heads were made and what that said about the culture and sensitivity of the people there. She said, "If I could go back in time to any place in history, I would have liked to have lived in Ifé in the 1300s." It certainly would be interesting to know what was it in their society that made them take a turn toward this lovely naturalism. One has only to look at the smooth kindly face of Ooni Obalufon II (above) to imagine what Ifé might have been like.
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Articles referenced for this article can be found by clicking on the photos. YouTube has a two part video (15 minutes each part) from the British Museum on the Ifé Heads.
For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at amazon.com/author/marjorievernelle
She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on ofartandwine.com