The cast-copper-alloy heads represent the rulers of Ife life.
The cast-copper-alloy heads represent the rulers of Ife life.
Karin L. Willis

Faces of Ife

When you walk into "Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, it feels like you are walking into a crowd of people. The exhibition is filled with the faces of distinct, but long dead, individuals, depicted in striking works of stone, terracotta and metal from the 9th through 15th centuries. First among the standout works on view are the exhibition's cast-copper-alloy heads representing the rulers of Ife.

The West African Yoruba city-state Ife may have been an urban center as early as 500 AD. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, it was wealthy, dynamic and cosmopolitan. Today, Ife is in the southwest region of what is now Nigeria, and the dynasty itself is more than 800 years old. The city is considered the spiritual home of the Yoruba ethnic group. The current Ooni (ruler) of Ife, Alayeluwa Oba Okunade Sijuwade Olubuse II, is the 50th. These centuries-old depictions of rulers are essentially family portraits. Several works in the show are said to have resided in the Ooni's palace since their making.

The cast-metal heads are highly naturalistic; you can tell that each was modeled after a specific person. They are, however, depicted in a way that idealizes them as rulers; neither fierce nor haughty, they emanate a calm, elegant serenity. Their smooth features are composed, with their eyes looking forward, their mouths closed.


Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

"Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria"

Through January 9, 2011

Fine horizontal lines are inscribed down some of the faces, perhaps representing a style of scarification no longer practiced today or possibly indicating the beaded veils still worn by Yoruba leaders over their faces on certain ceremonial occasions. Other copper heads have rows of holes drilled into them where a beaded veil would have likely been attached. And the heads themselves may have originally been attached to wooden figures.

The heads were cast using a lost wax process that allows a sculptor to create a one-off metal cast. Basically, a clay core would be covered with a thick layer of wax that would then be sculpted. A clay shell would be created over the wax and heated.  The wax would melt out and bronze would be poured in its place.

Traditional Yoruban culture and belief systems continue today. (Santería in Cuba and Puerto Rico and Voudoun in Haiti grew out of Yoruba religion and mythology.) Many old shrines in Ife are still in use, although the current Ooni is a Muslim. Some of the sculptures in the exhibition were taken from active shrines in the early 20th century.

In 1938, a cache of the copper-alloy heads was unearthed near the Ooni's palace by workers digging a house foundation. The original of the crowned "Okolun" head (the one on display at the MFAH is thought to be a reproduction) was found in the Okolun Grove, where it was used in rites honoring the sea goddess and bead-making patroness Okolun. (Ife was a major center of glass bead production.)

When these stunning works came to European attention in the early 20th century, the initial response of some scholars was that they simply couldn't be African; there had to be some Greek influence. The works' style didn't fit that of the African art they knew, and the skill and technical abilities of the Ife artists didn't fit in with the Europeans' African stereotypes. In 1910, when German explorer Leo Frobenius was shown an Ife metal head, he theorized that it was made by the lost Greeks of Atlantis, writing, "I was moved to silent melancholy at the thought that this assembly of degenerate and feeble-minded posterity should be the legitimate guardians of so much loveliness."

Thankfully, the museum world is past that kind of blatant racism. At one time, not very long ago, I'm sure this work would have been considered under the purview of the Museum of Natural Science rather than the Museum of Fine Arts. But non-Western art is still viewed though a deeply embedded Eurocentric lens. The MFAH press release stated, "These sculptures have been compared to the finest portraits of the classical ancient world of Greece and Rome," and MFAH director Peter Marzio is quoted as saying, "Remarkably, the Ife people were creating these sculptures before the European Renaissance began."

The Times of London declared this exhibition, previously on view at the British Museum, a "once-in-a-lifetime, revolutionary event." But for such an important show, the installation at the MFAH is lackluster. All of the pieces are stuck in one big, sterile white room — that basement gallery in the Beck Building across from Café Express. It not only feels like a crowd, it is crowded. "Dynasty and Divinity" is a wonderful show and a coup for the museum. I just wish it got a little more of the royal treatment.


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >