Monday, February 15, 2016

The Copper Heads of Ife

Ife was for centuries the capital of Nigeria's Yoruba people. According to their legends, when lord of the sky Oloron sent Odudua to earth to create humanity, he landed at Ife. Ife has been an important town and palace since the eighth century, and from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries it was the center of a great kingdom. It remains an important spiritual and political site for the Yoruba.

In 1910 a German explorer named Leo Frobenius returned from Ife with several sculptures in a naturalistic style. Some were terracotta, others copper alloy. Frobenius was a fascinating character, a pioneer of accurate ethnography but also the author of racist myths. Among other things he recorded the famous oral legend that we know as The Ruin of Kasch. Confronted with these heads he thought they must have been made in some as yet undiscovered Greek colony in southern Africa, perhaps the lost Kingdom of Atlantis. Thus Frobenius: he took African art seriously and thought it was amazing, collected and studied it and contributed much to knowledge of regional styles and the like, but on the other hand he doubted that some of its most famous works could have been made by Africans.

In 1938 workers digging a foundation in the Wunmonije Compound in Ife uncovered a cache of 17 copper heads. Nigeria was then a British colony, and the discovery of the heads created a sensation among British anthropologists and art lovers. Several of the heads ended up the the British Museum, the rest in a new museum in Ife. The heads date to the 1200s CE or possible the early 1300s. This head and the one at top are the two most famous.

The Yoruba have a very elaborate oral history, including a list of kings that goes back a thousand years. Yoruba scholars associated the heads with King Obalufon II, who reigned around that time and was said to have restored the temples of Ife after a period of Civil War. In striving to make the temples more beautiful than ever he became a great patron of the arts, and, his court, the Yoruba experts thought, was the mostly likely source of these amazing works.

Western experts tend to think that the heads were made over an extended period of time. This head is said to be Obulafon himself. You will notice that it does not have the striations that mark many of the others. This is thought to represent a change in royal regalia. The lines most likely represent face paint that the kings and queens put on for special ceremonies; according to some traditions, Obulafon banned that practice. If true, that implies that the heads with striations were made before his time, although it is possible that they were made to replace portraits of past rulers that had been lost when the temples were looted during the Civil War, in a deliberately archaic style. The holes in Obulafon's face were for the attachment of a beard made of human hair.

The copper heads were made using he lost-wax process, a clever trick that people seems to have discovered independently on several separate occasions. The metal is copper alloyed with zinc and lead, in varying proportions that suggest a lot of experimentation to get the color just right; these would have been reddish gold when new.

The elaborate crowns are full of symbolism, although unfortunately much of the meaning has been lost.

Wonderful works, and evocative of a whole world of cities and people about which I and most other northerners know next to nothing.

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