Almost a thousand years ago, Ife artisans sculpted heads in bronze and terracotta, whose realism and beauty continue to amaze and amaze.
The Yoruba, a people living in Nigeria, consider Ife to be a sacred city founded by the gods, and the cradle of humanity. Located 215 kilometres northeast of the Nigerian city of Lagos, Ife is the place where archaeologists discovered a series of sculptures that revealed to the world the rich art history of the Yoruba culture.
In metal or terracotta, Ife's heads show a pronounced taste for symmetry. Some faces are adorned with lines and patterns, and elaborate hairstyles top these majestic heads.
When he first observed these works of art in 1910, the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius was completely ignorant of the importance placed on faces in Yoruba cosmology. Although rooted in deep racism, his theories about the origins of these heads and the fascination they aroused in him initiated a shift in the way the Western world viewed African cultures.
Born into a bourgeois family in Berlin in 1873, then the capital of the new German Empire, Frobenius spent his childhood and youth reading the chronicles of 19th century explorers, fueling his fascination with the African continent. From 1904, Frobenius traveled to Africa, bringing back thousands of cultural objects from his travels which he sold to German museums.
In 1910, he began his fourth expedition, passing through Yoruba territory, then controlled by British Nigeria. Appearing around 1,000 years ago, Yoruba culture flourished in the region and its people founded many kingdoms and cities. Today, the Yoruba are still one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria.
Frobenius spent about three weeks in the town of Ife. Founded in the 11th century, Ife was known for the know-how of its craftsmen. Frobenius was familiar with the rich culture of the wider region, for in 1897 the British had brought elaborate bronzes from the kingdom of Benin.
Although Frobenius' local culture knowledge was slim, he had heard of a work of art in Ife that he believed to be dedicated to the god Olokun, a Yoruba sea deity. He asked to see her and was escorted to a sacred palm grove, where the object had been ritually buried. We exhumed it so he could inspect it.
He described it as "a head of marvellous beauty, wonderfully cast in antique bronze, true to life, encrusted with a splendid dark green patina". Naming the 'head of Olokun', Frobenius pressured locals to sell him, for the sum of six pounds sterling.
Photographed in 1910, Olokun's head was lost after Leo Frobenius was forced to return it to Ife.
The sale caused consternation among the ancient Yoruba, and the matter rose to the top of the British administration. As Germany was a rival colonial power in West Africa, Frobenius' activities attracted attention. He was forced to return Olokun's head to Ife. However, he managed to return to Germany with several terracotta heads.
Despite his admiration for these sculptures, Frobenius could not accept that they were made by Africans. His racism led him to a ridiculous theory, according to which the survivors of the legendary Atlantis had brought know-how from their Greek civilization to Africa. The Yoruba god Olokun, he said, was none other than the Greek sea god Poseidon.
Olokun's head, he wrote, had "a symmetry, a vitality, reminiscent of Greece and a proof that, in the past, a race, far superior in tension to the blacks, had settled here." These ideas were representative of European thought at the start of the 20th century. Nigerian archaeologist Ekpo Eyo later wrote that preconceived notions of so-called Western civilization blinded non-African scholars that complex and sophisticated works of art and culture could have come from being the work of African artists.
“Those who were in power in Europe in previous centuries resorted to division, they denied African art its rightful place in the history of universal human creative endeavour. "
With Olokun's head missing after his return, it's difficult to know for sure his date. Researchers believe it probably dates from 1350.
European researchers returned to Ife, hoping to unearth more bronzes. They unreservedly unearthed many terracotta heads, many of which were taken to museums.
The most important discovery took place in 1938, when more than a dozen heads were unearthed. Like Olokun's lost head, these were made of a copper alloy but were widely documented as bronzes. Many can be seen today in the Museum of Antiquities of Ife.
In 1948, archaeologists accepted that the heads were the work of Yoruba craftsmen and not people from Atlantis.
Ife's masterpieces played a key role in overturning prejudices that Africa produced only “primitive” art. In response to a 1948 exhibition of heads at the British Museum, a London publication declared: “This African art is worthy of being among the finest works of Italy and Greece. "
The study showed that the royal leaders represented were not gods but men - the ooni, rulers of the Yoruba kingdoms. The wealthy ooni obtained the metals for works of art by exchanging gold and ivory along the Saharan routes to Europe. For the Yoruba, heads are more than beautiful objects. In Yoruba belief, the head is the abode of the Ori, the seat of the soul and the place where a person's fate is determined.
Due to the deep spiritual significance of these artifacts produced in Ife, many Nigerians are arguing for the repatriation of Ife heads, as part of a larger debate calling for the return of African artifacts to the lands that created them.