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February 19, 2010 11:10 pm
Two bronze heads stand on a table-top in a back room at the British Museum. Meticulously incised lines run down smooth, elegant features that exude a stylised, “Egyptian” serenity. Yet there is at the same time something startlingly realistic about these faces: the sense, caught in the subtle curve of a mouth or cheek, that these are real people, who walked the streets of the Nigerian city of Ife some 700 years ago.
When the German archaeologist Leo Frobenius set eyes on the first of these heads to be unearthed in 1910, its bronze features “of perfect mould”, he declared that he had seen the face of Poseidon, sea god of the ancient Greeks – proof, he claimed, of the existence of an African Atlantis. Nonsense, of course, and since their discovery in a series of remarkable finds in the early and mid-20th century the so-called “Ife heads” have attracted much rash speculation and many even rasher acts.
There are only 20 of them in existence. Made between the 13th and early 15th centuries, using the lost-wax process, they challenge ideas about the primitivism of black Africa that are widely held even today. Who they represent – deities, kings or ordinary people – and why they were created remain mysterious. Several of them have been removed from Nigeria in dubious circumstances, others simply stolen (then returned); at least one is a fake.
Now 12 of these heads and one half-length figure are to be displayed at the British Museum, along with a wealth of terracotta sculpture, pottery and other objects, almost all of it lent by Nigeria’s Commission for Museums and Monuments. While much of the terracotta work is extraordinarily refined, it is the bronze heads that tug most at the imagination. Does their realism and technical sophistication provide evidence of links between tropical Africa and the ancient Mediterranean? Or was medieval Africa far more advanced than was previously imagined? As our views on Africa have developed over the past century, the political dimensions of such questions have been magnified.
A web of intrigue and controversy surrounds these extraordinary objects. It centres on the most famous of them, the Ori Olokun – the so-called Head of the Sea God – unearthed by Frobenius in 1910. A freebooting Indiana Jones figure, part visionary, part charlatan, Frobenius arrived in Ife, the spiritual capital of the Yoruba people, with the aim of finding evidence of a lost “white” African civilization. The Yoruba are Nigeria’s largest ethnic group, numbering some 35m. According to Yoruba beliefs, Ife is the place where the world began. While the city’s heyday lasted from 1000 to 1600AD, its ruler, the Oni of Ife, retains a degree of spiritual authority in beliefs that spread into the neo-African religions of the New World, including Voodoo and Santería.
But in the early 1900s such things were little appreciated by outsiders. While Frobenius was one of the first Europeans to recognise that Africa had a civilisation, he believed that the sophistication he observed in the continent’s art and oral literature could only be the result of ancient contact with Europe. And he took possession of perhaps the greatest artefact to come out of the continent, so he boasted, for “six pounds and a bottle of Scotch”.
Yet after complaints from the Oni, Frobenius was apprehended trying to leave Nigeria, and forced to return the bronze head. Had he legitimately excavated the object in one of the city’s sacred groves, as he vividly described in his book The Voice of Africa? Or had he simply stolen it, as the people of Ife claimed? It is likely that the head had been unearthed by local people decades before Frobenius arrived. Probably representing an ancient ruler, it was absorbed into the worship of the sea deity Olokun (actually a goddess) in whose sacred grove it had been found, and each year it was put back into the earth after annual rites for fear of offending the god.
The Oni, meanwhile, announced the existence of a second head – the brass mask of a mythical king – that had been kept in his palace since it was made, probably in the 14th century.
In 1938, a larger group of heads was found during the digging of foundations near the palace. While 15 of them were handed over to the Oni, three others disappeared before the find was officially announced. Two were bought for trifling sums by a young American anthropologist, who claimed in the Illustrated London News that he had discovered an “unknown Nigerian Donatello”, though he was eventually persuaded to return them. A third, bearing a crown similar to the one on the Frobenius head, was bought by a Mr Bates, editor of the Nigerian Daily Times, who sold it to Sir Kenneth – late Lord – Clark, through whom it entered the British Museum’s collection. While Clark probably didn’t profit personally from this transaction, the suspicion that he did persists – particularly in Nigeria.
The existence of 19 of these heads and a half-length figure agitated scholars in a range of disciplines. Their features were classified according to racial type – Egyptian, Moorish, Negro – in attempts to explain their provenance. To complicate matters, the head returned by Frobenius was discovered to be an early 20th-century “reproduction”. Had Frobenius, long since dead, substituted a fake and departed with the real thing, or had he too been fooled?
In the post-independence period, the Ife heads became icons of African “greatness”, pointers to Ife’s interactions with other civilisations, and the question of what had happened to the original Ori Olokun, the Frobenius head, remained current. In 1978, the Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, himself of Yoruba origin, was made aware of the existence of a bronze head in a private collection in Brazil – similar to the disputed Frobenius head, which now stood in the Ife Museum, but of far greater quality. In his memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2007), Soyinka recalls how, in a spirit of cultural duty, and with the knowledge of the Nigerian authorities, he mounted a kind of guerrilla raid with a group of friends, stealing the object from the apartment in question in near-farcical circumstances, and removing it to the Senegalese capital Dakar, where experts proclaimed it genuine. Suspicious, however, of the lightness of the object, Soyinka examined it further to find the letters “BM” stamped on the back: it was a British Museum replica, once sold in the museum’s shop. Soyinka then declared the British Museum’s head to be the real Ori Olokun, even though it was excavated 18 years after Frobenius’s original discovery.
The British Museum exhibition provides a wealth of information on the world in which these images were created, telling of the immense importance of the head in Yoruba belief, as a seat of spiritual energy. Yet the central riddle of these objects is barely broached. And that isn’t so much how this realistic aesthetic came to be evolved in Africa, as why it is embodied in so few objects. In the absence of more credible hypotheses, the idea (first mooted in the 1940s) that they were all produced by one workshop or even one man – who may have come from far afield – still hasn’t been ruled out.
And what did happen to the Ori Olokun, the “reproduction” of which is included in the exhibition? Does it still exist in Ife, preserved in some small shrine, to be one day revealed to the world?
‘Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa’ opens on March 4 at the British Museum, London. www.britishmuseum.org. Sponsored by Santander with support from the A.G. Leventis Foundation
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