The Human Form: Portraits In African Art

       According to Kingdom of Ife, an article written by the British Museum, Ife is rightly regarded as the birthplace of some of the highest achievements of African art and culture, combining technical accomplishment with strong aesthetic appeal. From the 12th to the 15th centuries, Ife flourished as a powerful, cosmopolitan and wealthy city-state in West Africa, in what is now modern Nigeria. It was an influential centre of trade connected to extensive local and long-distance trade networks which enabled the region to prosper. Ife developed a refined and highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in stone, terracotta, brass and copper-alloy to create a style unlike any in Africa at the time. The human figures portray a wide cross-section of Ife society and include depictions of youth and old age, health and disease, suffering and serenity. The almost pure copper mask of Obalufon II, an early Ooni (king) of Ife is one of the finest images of royal power from Ife (Kingdom of Ife).                                                                              Some of the artworks in this gallery are: Shrine Head (1100 - 1399) by Unknown, Minneapolis Institute of Art; Ife head: Brass head of a ruler (1300-1450), British Museum; Head of the femenine personage - Culture Ife (10th century - 12th century) by Unknown, Fundacion Alberto Jimenez-Arellano Alonso-Universidad de Valladolid; and Head, possibly a King (12th–14th century) by African, southwestern Nigeria, Ife culture Kimbell Art Museum. From bronze to terracotta, each shows the creativity and inventiveness of the African artists in terms of portraiture.                                                              Sources:            “Ancient Africa.” Survey of Non-Western Art. Boundless, 13 Apr. 2016. Retrieved 27 Apr. 2016 from https://www.boundless.com/users/159928/textbooks/survey-of-non-western-art/africa-before-1800-ce-17/ancient-africa-113/ancient-africa-498-5364/                       

Apley, Alice. “Ife Terracottas.” The Met Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct 2001. Web. 26 April 2016.                  “Ife.” Boundless Art History. Boundless, 21 Jul. 2015. Retrieved 05 Mar. 2016 from https://www.boundless.com/art-history/textbooks/boundless-art-history-textbook/africa-before-1800-ce-17/sub-saharan-civilizations-115/ife-503-5362/                       “Ile-Ife.” Survey of Non-Western Art. Boundless, 13 Apr. 2016. Retrieved 27 Apr. 2016 from https://www.boundless.com/users/159928/textbooks/survey-of-non-western-art/africa-before-1800-ce-17/africa-from-1000-to-1700-ce-116/ile-ife-509-5180/              "Kingdom of Ife: sculptures from West Africa." The British Museum. Jason Greeves, 2010. Web. 26 April 2016.               

According to Alice Apley from the Met Museum, the art-historical importance of Ife works lies in their highly developed and distinctive sculptural style, described alternately as naturalistic, portraitlike, and humanistic. The naturalistic style was developed first in terracotta and subsequently transferred to other media. One example of various media that were used is bronze. Examples of that will be seen in the following artwork for this gallery (Apley). Google Art Gallery Description- Between the 12th and 14th centuries, the royal city of Ife, in present-day Nigeria, was a center of economic, religious and political power, and its importance was reflected in a highly developed and distinctive sculptural style. Portrait heads modeled in terracotta or bronze stood on royal shrines in the palace compound. This head probably represents a woman of the royal court. The delicate lines on her face show a pattern of scarification, the cutting of designs into the skin to mark identity, status and beauty. The sensitive realism of this portrait is unusual among African art styles which typically present abstracted and generalized representations of the human image. Works of art from Ife are very rare. This superb creation is one of only three in American museum collections (Google Art Gallery). Source: Apley, Alice. “Ife Terracottas.” The Met Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct 2001. Web. 26 April 2016.
According to Boundless, one of the trademarks of Ife art are the bronze sculptures of people (Ife). The artworks are noted for their naturalism and they often depict people with high status, like rulers and kings. In addition, the artists used proportion, scale, and emphasis to add symbolism to the piece. For instance, the large head makes room for the individual’s power/energy while a covered mouth prevents his words from becoming too powerful (Ife). According to the British Museum, “Ife developed a refined and highly naturalistic sculptural tradition… to create a style unlike any in Africa at the time” (Kingdom). Google Art Gallery Description- In January 1938 workmen were clearing away topsoil for house foundations they struck metal and found a group of sculptures in the form of human heads cast in metal. The location was in Wunmonije Compound in the city of Ife, in what is now south-western Nigeria. This accidental find led to the eventual discovery of seventeen heads in brass and copper and the broken top half of a king figure. This magnificent brass head was one of those discovered in Wunmonije Compound. The identification and function of the head, and the others discovered at this site, remain uncertain. It clearly portrays a person of status and authority, possibly a king (ooni) of Ife. The elaborate beaded headdress with feathered fringe was originally painted in red and black. Traces of the pigment remain today. The finds from Wunmonije Compound were published in 1938-9 and created a sensation in the western world. It was initially assumed that these beautiful sculptures could not have been made in Africa by African artists. The life-like modelling was compared with the classical traditions of Ancient Greece and Rome. It was even suggested that these heads were evidence that Ife was the site of the legendary lost civilization of Atlantis as described by the Greek philosopher, Plato. The sculptures from Ife are now rightly seen as one of the highest achievements of African art and culture. Ife began to develop as a city-state in the late first millennium (around AD 800). It became a leading political, economic and spiritual centre in the lower Niger region. Between 1100 AD and 1400 AD it flourished as a commercial centre with access to the lucrative trade networks along the Niger River. Today, Ife is regarded as the legendary homeland of the Yoruba-speaking peoples. Even today, its ruler is thought of as the descendant of the original creator gods. “Ife.” Boundless Art History. Boundless, 21 Jul. 2015. Retrieved 05 Mar. 2016 from https://www.boundless.com/art-history/textbooks/boundless-art-history-textbook/africa-before-1800-ce-17/sub-saharan-civilizations-115/ife-503-5362/ “Kingdom of Ife: sculptures from West Africa.” The British Museum. Jason Greeves, 2010. Web. 26 April 2016.
Bronze and terracotta art are significant examples of realism in pre-colonial African art. Important people were often depicted with large heads, as the Yoruba believed that the Ase, or inner power and energy of a person, was held in the head. Rulers were often depicted with their mouths covered so that the power of their speech would not be too great (Boundless). According to Google Art Gallery, small femenine head which stands out for its elegance and serenity. It may represent a noblewomen, as is suggested-according to some specialists-by the scarifications, a recurring motif which covers the whole face. The portrait is crafted in a realistic but idealised manner: thus, the ears, the almond eyes, the nose and the thick and sensual lips are modelled in a naturalistic way. The cheeks are slightly swollen. The hairstyle is simple, with the hair gathered at the back in two oval shaped buns. It probably formed part of a statue which has been lost (Google Art Gallery).
The art of Ife, which flourished from the twelfth to the fifteenth century in southwestern Nigeria, in the area occupied by the Yoruba people, is unique in Africa in representing human beings with extraordinary naturalism. The subject matter of most Ife art is centered around royal figures and their attendants, reflecting the political structure of a city-state ruled over by a divine king, the Oni of Ife. Sculpted heads were buried in the ground at the foot of giant trees and resurrected when they were used ritually as offerings or sacrifices, sometimes on an annual basis. Ife bronzes and terracottas have been recovered from groves containing sacred shrines, from crossroads, and from older sections of the Ife palace compound (Google Art Gallery). The physiognomy of this head has been modeled with extraordinary subtlety, and the striations, which may represent scarification patterns, are incised with great delicacy. The square crown, formed of four rectangular aprons overlying a conical form and embellished with a network of intersecting beads, is unparalleled in any other known examples of Ife art. Like the vast majority of Ife heads in terracotta, the Kimbell example seems to have been broken from a full-length figure. The serene and dignified countenance, as well as the elaborate crown, suggests that this head represents an Ife king (Oni) (Google Art Gallery).
Benin metal casting is believed to have begun in the 14th century, when memorial heads were first created to decorate shrines honoring deceased Obas, or kings. The hole in the top of the head held a carved elephant tusk chronicling the exploits of the honored king. When an Oba's responsibilities passed from one generation to the next, each new Oba commissioned artists to create memorial heads representing his predecessor. This head was created during the Middle Period of the Benin Kingdom, considered the high point of Benin art. The Oba is shown wearing a beaded necklace and hat, with another bead on his forehead, all made from coral brought across the Sahara Desert from the Mediterranean Sea. Coral was held only by the Oba, and its use in his ornaments symbolizes his far-reaching control of international trade (Google Art Gallery). In addition to the large body of terracotta works is a much smaller number of copper and brass heads and full-body statues, including the unique seated figure of a man found in the village of Tada. In Yoruba tradition, women are the clayworkers. They produce both sacred and secular pieces and may have been the creators of the archaeological terracottas. Men are traditionally the sculptors of stone, metal, and wood. The production of bronze cast works, involving both terracotta and metalworking, may have been collaborative efforts (Apley).
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