Friday, 12 March 2010

Kingdom of Ife : African sculpture at the British Museum

Kingdom of Ife: African Sculpture is currently on at the British Museum. Go - some of these figures have been brought over specially from Nigeria, where they're usually kept in pride of place as part of African heritage.

These sculptures easily compete artistically with anything in the west. They represent kings and gods, but, unlike Greek and Roman pieces, they present them in a strikingly intimate, human and individual way. Even Michelangelo marbles pale against them, for these are real people, not allegories. In comparison, even Renaissance marbles look prettified and indirect. Western artists focus on the beauty of the body : The Ife depict the beauty of the spirit. Perhaps that says something about the nature of kingship in Africa, perhaps not, but theses cultures are unique.

Ife figures are so realistic, that being with them is an eerie experience. You know they are inanimate objects, but you feel they could breathe, speak or move at any moment. How can we be sure that as we're watching them that they're not watching us?

No wonder they're reputed to have supernatural powers, like the seated man from Tada who was ceremonially taken and washed in the Niger. He's extremely famous, from photos. Live he seems surprisingly small, given his iconic reputation, but he's so intense, he seems superhuman.

The Kingdom of Ife started around 800, and still remains today. These sculptures date from 1100-1500. This was a sophisticated and prosperous nation. Technically these bronzes are so well made that there is nothing quite like them elsewhere. There are sculptures in bronze, copper, stone and terracotta, and smaller objects like votives, spear heads etc, showing that the bronze heads weren't a fluke, but came from a long tradition.

As design icons, they're amazing. For some unknown reason, many of the faces are striated vertically - nothing like scarification, but more elegant and stylized. These lines create a distance between the object and viewer but also accentuate the muscles and curves so they're even more tactile. The holes drilled in some heads may have been made so headresses and fake hair could be attached.

Look at the detail on the King in the photo. He's wearing elaborate symbols of royalty and wealth. Look at that neckplate, festooned with carnelian beads. Another kingly figure holds a horn which may have held medicinal potions. One of the women wears an elaborately woven headress, complete with jewels. These figures are meant to awe you with their regal presence. Yet the most moving are the simplest, depicting the ruler as an ordinary person, emanating serenity, calm, goodness.

Besides the amazing heads, there are other objects. Beautiful stools, for example, carved in a surprisingly modern free form. There's a flatfish of old granite, hardly carved at all. Yet in its simplicity and abstraction, it "feels" like a huge, lugubrious flatfish, lying in the river bed.

There is a lot to see in this exhibition, so take your time and make more than one visit. You'll come away with a completely different perspective on world art. Please read more
HERE. Please reads Waldemar Januszak HERE

No comments: