VISUAL ARTS + MUSEUMS
Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria
September 19, 2010 - January 9, 2011
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston presents the exhibition Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria. On view Sunday, September 19, 2010 - Sunday, January 9, 2011 at the Audrey Jones Beck Building.
Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria features more than 100 extraordinary copper, terra cotta, and stone sculptures that were uncovered in the 1910s and 1930s in present-day Southwest Nigeria. Currently on view at the British Museum, in London, the Ife artworks stand, as London´s Guardian commented, "with the Terracotta Army, the Parthenon or the mask of Tutankhamen as treasures of the human spirit"; London´s Times declared the exhibition a "once-in-a-lifetime, revolutionary event."
Made of metal, stone, and terra cotta, the sculptures present a view of African art that is familiar to specialists but unfamiliar to the general public, broadening our view of the art and cultures of Africa. Made between the 9th and 15th centuries in Ife—an ancient city-state and center of trade—these sculptures show highly developed techniques in brass- and copper casting; sensitive, lifelike, naturalistic rendering; and expert use of balance and proportion. The many life-size, sculpted heads seem to capture the confidence and serene spirit of the ancient rulers of Ife, the sacred center of all creation according to legend. This is the first time that many of the artworks can be seen outside of Nigeria.
Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria makes its U.S. debut at the MFA Houston September 19, 2010 through January 9, 2011. The exhibition has been organized by the Museum for African Art, New York, and the Fundación Marcelino Botín, in Santander, Spain, in collaboration with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, which has loaned all of the objects on view.
"This is the first exhibition of Ife art to reach the United States, and Houston is proud to be the venue for its debut," said Dr. Peter C. Marzio, MFAH director. "Ife artists possessed an advanced understanding of human anatomy, proportion, and metal-casting, creating artwork that is stylistically similar to European classical art, yet gorgeously original. Remarkably, the Ife people were creating these sculptures before the European Renaissance began."
"These sculptures were first excavated in 1910, and more were discovered in 1938 when builders laying the foundation of a house in Nigeria struck these cast-metal heads buried in the earth," said Frances Marzio, MFAH curator of the Glassell Collections and organizer of Dynasty and Divinity in Houston. "Rarely seen outside of Nigeria, these ancient, lifelike sculptures are a revelation, enriching and expanding our vision of African art."
City-State of Ife
Ife today is a city of several hundred thousand people, and it is regarded as the homeland of the Yoruba-speaking people. According to Yoruba myth, Ife was the center of the creation of the world and all mankind. It is 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 city-state in West Africa. Situated on the Niger River, the metropolis was an influential center of commerce connected to extensive local and long-distance trade networks, which enabled the region to prosper and import copper some 300 years before European contact. The artists of Ife developed a refined and highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in stone, terra cotta, brass and copper alloy, resulting in 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 most famous sculptures are the powerful, regal portrait heads of rulers.
Ife was home to many sacred groves located in the city´s forests. Two groves in particular have revealed numerous sculptures: the Ore Grove, with its stone monoliths and human and animal figures; and the Iwinrin Grove, which is associated with terra cotta heads and fragments from life-size figures.
Other sites have revealed spectacular pieces with royal associations, including the only known complete king figure and an exquisite terra cotta head, possibly portraying a queen— both from Ita Yemoo. A terra cotta elephant and a hippopotamus´ head lavishly adorned with beaded regalia come from the royal burial site known as Lafogido.
The figurative terra cotta sculptures, which represent the largest group of works in the exhibition, capture the diverse nature of Ife society at the time. Several terra cotta heads bear facial striations suggesting cultural markings, some possibly from groups outside Ife. Some heads appear to depict women wearing regalia or jewelry indicating their elevated status. Also on display are almost life-size copper-alloy heads that reveal an idealized, naturalistic uniformity, although each head has notable individual characteristics. It is suggested that they were produced over a relatively short period of time, possibly in a single workshop. These heads are believed to be associated with the coronation or the accession rituals of new rulers of city-states that owed allegiance to Ife.
Today Ife remains a major spiritual and religious center. Some of its shrines and groves are still in use, and rituals related to key gods are performed regularly. Works of art from Ife have become iconic symbols of regional and national unity, and of pan-African identity. Since Nigeria´s independence in 1960, enthusiasm for copies or reproductions of heritage items with nostalgic associations has increased. The Ori Olokun head was chosen as the logo for the All-Africa Games held in Lagos in 1973 and has been adopted as the logo of numerous commercial, educational and financial institutions. Such images have become universal symbols of African heritage.
The African Art Galleries at the MFAH
The Dynasty and Divinity presentation in Houston will coincide with the opening of newly reinstalled African art galleries. The museum´s collection spans some 2,500 years, from Nigeria´s Nok culture of 1000 B.C. to the early 20th century. The newly expanded African art gallery space, located on the second floor of the Caroline Wiess Law Building, will total 4,658 square feet.
Several works by the Benin people—the cultural and artistic successors of the Ife people, who according to legend learned lost-wax casting from the Ife artists—will be on view: a plaque, a hip mask, and a newly acquired, rare Benin Head depicting an oba, or king. Larger and heavier than the Ife heads, the Benin Head shows a more stylized approach than the naturalistic design of Ife predecessors, revealing how depictions of people in southern Nigeria transformed from realistic renderings to a more abstract style over time.
In addition, a new room dedicated to Sub-Saharan Africa will join galleries dedicated to the Glassell Collection of African Gold—the largest and most comprehensive collection of African gold in an American museum.
Never-before-seen African textiles will be on view, including Akan kente cloth: brilliantly colored fabric woven in complex geometric patterns imparted with meanings that reflect Akan beliefs, historical events, and socio-political organizations. The majority of the cloths in the collection come from Ghana.
Another highlight is an imposing Spirit Statue (early 20th century), standing four feet tall and made from wood. Of all the sacred cults of the Urhobo people in Nigeria, the most important is the one dedicated to ancestors, and the statues honor them through the representation of powerful spirits as mythical warriors. Kept in sanctuaries, the statues are the object of consecration rites, and the MFAH´s example is one of the most refined and well-preserved of its kind.
A recent acquisition, a Reliquary Head fashioned by the Fang people in Gabon c. 1930, will also be on view. Created to enshrine the bones of ancestors and link the past and present, this sculpted head is a masterpiece of African art. Its elegant features and intense stare create a strong and hypnotic presence. This is its first time the artwork is on public view since it was purchased in 1935 by abstract American painter John P. Anderson, who cherished and was inspired by it for over 60 years.
Exhibition Tour and Sponsorship
Dynasty and Divinity debuted at the Fundación Marcelino Botín, in Santander, Spain, in 2009, and will begin its U.S. tour at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, followed by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Museum for African Art in New York. Previous venues are the Fundacíon Marcelino Botín, Santander; the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Ministry of Culture, Madrid; and The British Museum.
The exhibition has been supported, in part, by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. In Houston, generous funding is provided by the Wallace Foundation and Mrs. Linnet F. Deily.
A fully illustrated exhibition catalogue has been written by Henry John Drewal, Evjue-Bascom Professor of Art History and African-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Adjunct Curator of African Art at the University´s Chazen Museum of Art with an introductory essay by Enid Schildkrout, Chief Curator and Director of Exhibitions and Publications at the Museum for African Art. The catalogue has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and The Getty Foundation.
Pictured: Wunmonije Compound, Ife, Head with Crown, 14th-early 15th century, copper alloy, © National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria. Photo courtesy Museum for African Art/Fundación Marcelino Botín (Photo: Karin L. Willis).