15 th Century AD
11.5″ (29.2cm) high
This astounding bronze/brass head comes from a crucial time in the development of West African artistic traditions and technological innovation. Ife sculptures count among some of the earliest naturalistic expressions of humans in the world, significantly predating the European renaissance, and even today ranking among humanity’s greatest artistic achievements. The current piece is a case in fact.
Depicting a young woman, the casting is incredibly fine (Ife metalwork is the finest in the ancient world; their refinement – castings being only about 1/16th of an inch thick – was not equalled in the west until the 19th century) and the surface details picked out perfectly. The head is largely naturalistic, and is shaped with full cheeks, a rounded jaw, a high brow, a flat forehead, narrow eyes with lightly lifted lateral aspects, a well-shaped nose and full lips. The expression of the face and the set of the lips imply a mood of pensive serenity. The head is topped with a cap-like piece of head wear that cuts around the ear, suggesting a skullcap design. The added piercings around the perimeter suggest that it might once have been decorated with perishable materials such as feathers. The piece also has an expressionistic quality: the entire surface is rendered as vertical lines in relief, stretching around the jowls then up the face into the line formed by the edge of the cap. The only polished (unlined) areas are the eyes, the lips, the cap and the ears, which are small and pressed back against the sides of the head. The neck, which is columnar and decorated with six lightly-impressed horizontal lines, is also unadorned. This is non-naturalistic, and was probably designed to be hidden by a textile or other perishable “body” or similar; this possibility is substantiated by the presence of pierced holes around the perimeter of the neck.
It is uncertain how these pieces were produced and how they were used. The subject is also unidentifiable. However, there are some tentative conclusions. The piece was produced using the comparatively crude method of cire perdue (lost wax) casting, in which a single, unique object is created from a single-use mould. It is crude in that most cultures are unable to make it especially thin in the mould, and this to capture fine, delicate surface detail. Early European explorers were so astonished by the fineness of these pieces that they refused to believe that the African populations had manufactured them, despite the fact that “classic” African features are depicted in every case. The Ife were also able to cast their pieces in almost pure bronze, without recourse to zinc that is used today to make the metal flow easier; they achieved this using multi- section crucibles and complex moulds, although the finer details of their craft still elude us. As suggested above, the piercings and the neck format imply a ceremonial role for the piece, perhaps as a ritual object that was displayed or paraded on special occasions. A similar object was kept on an altar in Ife, and is believed to represent Obalufon II, the first king of Ife, who is said to have introduced the art of metal casting to his people. The central difference is that the latter can be worn as a mask, possessing eye- holes and a hollow back. Plain-neck pieces such as this have been recovered from the royal enclosures at Ife, and are believed to have been placed on wooden bodies and dressed for some special occasion. However, the finer details are lost to us. The personage portrayed is probably a member of the royal family, modelled from life. She must have been immensely important to the Ife people if she was important enough to be portrayed in this way.
This is a flawless piece of museum-quality ancient African art, and one of the finest Ife pieces we have seen.
Bacquart, J. 1998. The Tribal Arts of Africa. Thames and Hudson
Drewel, J. and Pemberton, J. 1995. Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought. Abrams Inc.
Philips, T. (ed.) 1999. Africa: the Art of a Continent. Prestel.Login to view price