An exhibition of art from the Nigerian Kingdom of Ife at the British Museum isn’t only exquisitely beautiful, it is ‘something of absolute historical importance’, writes Joy Onyejiako. But given the low-key public response to the show, how much will it actually transform the ‘deeply embedded notion of African art as essentially primitive’ and encourage ‘the notion of a truly contemporary African artist’?
It was with great anticipation that I approached the ‘Kingdom of Ife’ exhibition on display in the central gallery space at the British Museum. When ‘Africa: the Art of a Continent’ showed at the Royal Academy in 1995, there was this huge buzz of excitement which created long, meandering queues of people stretching quite someway along the length of Piccadilly. I distinctly remember a potent level of group euphoria, a crowd filled with an electric energy and the overriding feeling that this was an exhibition not to be missed. ‘Africa’ had been brought to our doorsteps and the public came out in force, with a fierce hunger to eagerly feast their eyes on unknown treasures. With the ‘Kingdom of Ife’ I could not help but notice that, although billed as ‘This major exhibition presents exquisite examples of sculpture from West Africa in brass, copper, stone and terracotta’, the response to the museum’s publicity was very much low-key. There were no great crowds queuing in anticipation. The museum’s inner court was teeming with visitors but the ticket desk was highly conspicuous in its isolation; the tourists and throbbing crowds were not seeking tickets for the ‘Kingdom of Ife’. The vast majority seemed completely oblivious of the ‘major exhibition’ above their heads.
Regardless of the uninitiated throng, I headed across the Great Court and my unfettered footsteps began to grace the curving rise of Grecian steps. It was a strange feeling. I am quite unaccustomed to seeing African arts at this venue without first having to walk downstairs. Indeed, as the permanent African collection is hidden deep in the underbelly of this imperial beast we call the British Museum, the usual journey is subterranean. It might not occur to some people but the museum seems imbued with the Victorian class system of ‘upstairs and downstairs’ – upstairs for the wealthy and so-called enlightened, downstairs for those deemed ‘less deserving’. Perhaps the curators have unwittingly established a floor plan of exhibits that reflects their internalised sense of superiority over African artistry, ensuring that visitors to the African section must navigate to the lower levels of the building, to the very bottom of the cultural enclave. Without being too facetious, unlike the regal staircases that lead up towards other regional collections, the tunnel-like stairs down to the African Collection could quite easily be assumed to be heading in the direction of the lavatorial facilities, which are clearly mapped on the visitor’s architectural guide as situated on the same lower level.
So it felt like the beginning of a new experience as I made my way towards the inner quarter, an upward walk that was psychologically a purifying start. As I entered the dimly-lit gallery, I was greeted by the notion that here was something of absolute historical importance and not only a vista of exquisite beauty.
Copper heads, brass heads and terracotta heads, c1100–1400s, almost life sized, that immediately transfix one’s attention. Although little information is provided other than the dates and locations of discoveries in Ife, the finesse of execution and exquisitely accentuated details evoke a feeling that one could have seen these people in real life. They are the faces of the contemporary Nigerians that one comes across in everyday modern London, and so life-like that at times with very little imagination they could quite easily seem alive.
My response to these skilfully wrought visions was not awe and disbelief, it was why – why have there been so many lies and distortions written about the African artist and the continent as a whole? Why have these great artworks, along with many other African creations held in Western museums, still effectively remained unknown by the general public?
Western art institutions seem to devour the truth and deny people honest knowledge, keeping a tight rein (and reign!) on art and artefacts, many of which were pilfered and pillaged, decade after decade hiding them from view, only occasionally throwing some light on their African collections; and, just as suddenly as they appear, they disappear back to the storeroom, along with their cultural significance before their impact on the established art history canons can be recognised.
There are institutional prejudices towards the art of Africa that favour moneymaking blockbusters that exploit so-called ‘primitive’ arts and pander to the perceived exoticism that distorts Western understanding of this great continent. The ‘Kingdom of Ife’ exhibition has not encouraged crowds of viewers perhaps because these superb naturalistic artworks challenge Westerners’ concepts of Africa and because buried deep in their consciousness they cannot totally believe or honestly celebrate the superior level of technical skill developed within Africa long before and on par with European antiquities.
This historically challenging evidence remains largely ignored in the art history textbooks, which offer just minimal reference in passing, dropping great art such as these Ife sculptures in a gap between ‘crafts’ and ‘curios’. This exhibition with all its positive write-ups, hailed as ‘exceptional’, ‘unmissable’, ‘extraordinary’, should in 2010 be the sanction for a systematic annihilation of the once accepted anthropological debasement of African art and African artists. This should be the wake-up call to rewrite the history books and re-educate the masses, which includes many in Africa and those in the Diaspora, too long denied – culturally, socially and historically – the truth, as so many great works have been destroyed, sabotaged and falsely claimed.
Whilst walking amongst the Ife sculptures, I was privy to the quiet whispers of surprise that escaped from the mouths of Western visitors. On occasion I would catch small conversations revealing astonishment at the technical ability and craftsmanship; but, just in case the visitor succumbed to this new-found appreciation and engaged understanding, there were the intervening, obligatory images to reinforce and cement existing preconceptions: The familiar representation of the half-naked African. Among the most evidently posed black and white photos was one showing the bare chest and grimacing face of an elderly Olokun priest standing in front of a terracotta-crowned head of ‘Olokun’, set rather regally on a white sheet for a backdrop (the head is one of a group found by the German ethnographer Leo Frobenius at the grove of the Yoruba God, Olokun). Another photo, which seems a perfect match for the stereotyped images that have captured the imagination of the Europeans and their fascination with the dark nakedness of African peoples, shows, yet again, a half-naked man, wearing only a badly fitting wrapper more like a loin cloth, with bare feet and arched back, poised over a granite palm-wine vessel. Influenced by its grainy black and white quality I initially thought it was from the 1800s, but alas, it is a modern image, taken in 1977. This signifies to me that a subtle undermining by reinforcing the stereotype of the primeval African artisan is still very much alive.
And what kept hitting me as I read the exhibition texts was the relentless paraphrasing of the fact that leading European anthropologists, academic experts and cultural historians felt secure in the knowledge that the Ife artworks could not have been produced by Africans, that they must have had some European influence. In their view, naturalistic creations were simply not possible or within the realms of African artistry. From the Portuguese who went to West Africa in the 1400s and ‘discovered’ great works of art, to the relatively contemporary archaeologists and historians who defined the Ife heads in 1910 and again in 1938, all remained adamant that such works could not have been created by the ‘primitive’ African. For centuries this European notion insisted that refined art was way beyond Africans’ skill and imagination, and copious amounts of research were published, all denigrating the African. In 1910 Leo Frobenuis proclaimed that the magnificent and mysterious Ife bronze heads were in fact from Plato’s lost city of Atlantis and that the ‘Olokun’ head, which the people of Ife identified as one of the wives of Odunduma, was, in his opinion, to be identified with the Greek god Poseidon.
Thankfully, science has been useful in dispelling some falsehoods. For example, carbon dating proves that Ife artisans made their own glass using local raw materials and confirms that the glass beads, which were once believed to have been imported from Europe or the Middle East, were in fact made in Ife, not to mention the intricately designed pavements and courtyards filled with life-sized sculptures.
As has been known amongst the African intelligentsia, and has now been scientifically and irrefutably proved, the Ife artists developed their own highly sophisticated ‘movement’ or ‘school’ of naturalistic expression well before any Western influence. For too long African intellectual knowledge and opinion has been ignored or devalued, with only the opinion of the Westerner being taken seriously; the Westerner being the ‘expert’, the one who has ‘studied’ African culture, albeit from a Eurocentric angle. And countless historical journals and published academic studies have indoctrinated generations into accepting these false versions of reality.
At the British Museum, the mistaken ‘expert opinions’ refuting the African origin of the Ife works, instead of being consigned to the dustbin where they belong, are again abundantly on display, as is the clarity with which they denigrate African abilities. Visitors reading these texts and the ideology expressed might perhaps just think how politically incorrect they are – but despite that, the falsehood has been needlessly repeated. Will this exhibition change the average visitor’s overall perception of African art? Leaving the exhibition will people now view the African artists of Ife and their work as equal to if not more sophisticated than their contemporaries in Europe c1100–1400?
In 1948, the Illustrated London News headline declared: ‘Donatellas of Medieval Africa. African Art worthy to rank with the finest works of Italy and Greece.’ In 2010, articles in The Telegraph, Times and Independent are all in agreement on the superior quality of the art of Ife. But it is still too easy today, as a visitor to museums and art galleries, to accept images and academic theory from a European perspective, even if our intuition tells us that we ought to challenge them, that there is something intrinsically wrong in their evaluation.
Africans are gradually learning to disassociate themselves from the negative European images of Africa and to make their own assessment of European art historians’ analyses that attempt to box African art into pre-conceived categories. Is the European analysis done with no real understanding of the cultural impact and societal damage to African peoples or to the global perception of a people? The visibly African Ife heads, with full rich lips, softly sculpted African noses and the beautifully braided hair of African heritage, were not only physically pillaged but also blatantly intellectually ‘pillaged’ in the European historical evaluation of who and what they signified. It is the same such evaluation of Egyptian antiquities that has resulted in defining Africans in Egypt only as slaves and the complete denial of the existence of African pharaohs. Just take a look in the Egyptian section of the British Museum and see those huge sculptures, many with noses visibly chipped, not erased by the grinding sand thrown around by the wind; the outline of the tip of a chisel can be seen in many. African images defaced, blatant historical brutality used with intent to destroy any notion that the African face was represented and that the African held power and influence in Egyptian culture.
So, what has this exhibition really achieved? Has it reshaped the distorted concept of African art at the core of European thinking? Has it altered the deeply embedded notion of African art as essentially primitive, naive, crude, the product of a society only capable of curios and fetishes? Has it encouraged the notion of a truly contemporary African artist?
Artists constantly battle to break free from perceived cultural limitations. Until very recently the predominant thinking in the European art world was that African artists should not be influenced by ‘modernity’ and if they are, then it is not ‘African’ art. Thus ‘African’ and ‘modern/contemporary’ were deemed mutually exclusive, enslaving creators to their ‘African-ness’ and denying them the ability to create a new art movement amongst contemporaries. Recent years have seen some recognition for Africa’s art, but if this ‘Kingdom of Ife’ exhibition is shown again in 2030, will it simply elicit the same comments of disbelief about past judgements on Africa’s arts, with nothing really having changed in outlook? Or will the art world have surpassed these deeply rooted internalised doubts? Will tomorrow’s arts graduates be truthfully informed and taught about Africa’s past and present artistic achievements?
I would wish that by 2030 African art historians, academics and teachers will have ripped out the pages of distortion in existing art history texts and will have written unbiased analysis to present in the art history lectures held in the art schools and academic institutions of the world, with full reference to the great achievements of African arts, not by simply a few paragraphs or the occasional image, but chapters, books and full-scale lectures, dispelling forever the notion of Africa as primitive.
Very little African knowledge is left as to the meaning and lives of the peoples of Ife. How did the Kingdom find its demise? Perhaps civil war in part, but I think it is possibly down to the mass enslavement of generations of people to the New World, the trade in human beings that included the artists and craftsmen, dissipating the knowledge and power of a once great kingdom.
Left behind in Ife were some of the greatest of human works of art, made with techniques developed by these magnificent people. The works more than equal those of the renaissance period in Europe, magnificent in their realistic portrayal of the human form. In addition there are ceramics, medals, quartz stools, equestrian figures, and jewellery that configures intricate links, with precisely carved pendants.
The Kingdom of Ife had an established community. This is not just an exhibition of art, but a wake-up call about the destruction of a society that wrenched the very heart and identity of a people. It opens the door of finding oneself; for all those in the Diaspora, more than lost works, more than colonial lies and untruths, this is the very picture of one’s identity of self. The lost Kingdom of Ife and many other African kingdoms, lost generations of artisans, mathematicians, chemists, physicists, lost in their chains bound for the New World; such a mass transportation of a people would no doubt leave unanswered questions, such as pertain to the Kingdom of Ife.
This exhibition does not just show the exquisite skill of a people, it also redefines the racist theories on Africa’s intellectual development and cultural sophistication.
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