Ife Terracotta Vessel

SKU PF.5854
Circa

13th Century AD to 15th Century AD

Dimensions

14″ (35.6cm) high x 8″ (20.3cm) wide

Medium

Terracotta

Origin

Nigeria

Gallery Location

USA


 

The relationship between the Ife, Benin and Yoruba Cultures is highly contentious. There are numerous technological and stylistic parallels but also highly distinctive cultural dichotomies. The ancient city of Ile-Ife is considered by many to be the starting point of almost all West African artistic traditions, from obscure beginnings in the second half of the first millennium BC to the early Middle Ages. The city continued until the 19th century, but was eclipsed from the 14th century onwards by the rapidly-expanding kingdom and city of Benin; both of these groups were eventually combined into what is currently known as the Yoruba polity.

This area was unique in Africa for the incredible quality and detail of their bronze and brass casting, which exceeded that of anywhere else in the world at the time. Unusually for African art, they were also extremely lifelike and naturalistic, which disproved many art historians’ assertions that African art was ‘primitive’ due to lack of ability. Ife metalworkers and sculptors were in great demand by the Benin Obas (kings) and courts, leading to considerable transfer of ideas and styles between the two cities. Most of their artistic oeuvres depict the ruling elites (especially the Obas – known as Oonis in Ife) as well as zoomorphic and general anthropomorphic figures, in addition to ‘cult’ objects of various forms and uncertain significance.

There is a general tendency for larger and more naturalistic works in Ife, while Benin bronzes – which assume a vast number of forms (from plaques to heads, leopards, portraits and boxes) – rapidly depart from naturalism and become decidedly expressionistic between the 16th and 19th centuries. Most free-standing Benin pieces tend to be decorated with floral or geometric designs on light-coloured metal, although large heads (usually more ornate and decorated than their Ife equivalents) are also known. Finally, comprehensive vertical facial scarification is common in Ife pieces (stone, ceramic and metal) but not in Benin examples. This piece is therefore a classic example of the Ife style.

The body of the vessel is comparatively simple in form, with a wide, rounded base narrowing to a small neck; a typically tear-drop shape. The only anatomical features of the woman whose head forms the apex of the vessel are executed in high-relief, mature breasts on the front. The rest of the piece is covered with zoomorphic motifs: a snail, a crustacean of some kind (a shrimp?) and a lizard, in addition to a further motif of organic but apparently abstract design. These do not have any specific significance in standard treatises on the Ife/Yoruba/Benin polities, but they are elements that recur consistently in the Yoruba until the present day.

The head of the pot is extremely sophisticated in terms of conceptualization and execution. The face is an upturned oval, framed by the ornately braided hair that forms the back of the pot. The flared apex of the coiffure forms the spout of the vessel, which bears a passing resemblance to the much later Mangbetu hairstyles. More probably, it is intended to represent a queen mother, which usually had tall, ornate hairstyles that served to differentiate them from images of Obas/Oonis (kings). The brows are high and arched, the eyes oval and well-delineated. The nose is broad and flat, surmounting a pouted mouth with a large lower and smaller upper lip. The face is beautifully scarified from apex to chin with narrow, perfectly symmetrical and unbroken lines. Smaller points such as the ears and the beading that marks the edge of the coiffure is picked out in superb detail.

The original function of the pot is not clear. It clearly had a somewhat elevated purpose – or perhaps owner – for it is hardly a plain, simple and unadorned everyday vessel. However, the texture of the ceramic, its colour and the patina it has accumulated seem to suggest that it was not purely ceremonial, and that it also had a functional aspect to it. It is therefore both socially and aesthetically important, and is a beautiful and genuinely important piece of ancient African art.

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