Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Human Image in Ancient Ife Art

"Awe," once a word meaning reverence, fear, and wonder, is currently considered to have broader application. "Awesome" may be used without prejudice to describe the flavor of chewing gum. I hesitate to use "awe" and its derivatives for the sake of clarity. But no other words will do for  "Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria." This show of ancient treasures lent by the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria is currently showing at the Indianapolis Art Museum until January 16, 2012. I've seen it twice; I hope I can see it again. Everything about it inspires awe: the artistry of the  finely wrought copper and terra cotta statuary, and the human qualities that emanate from the faces represented.
Head. Wunmonije Compound, Ife. 14th-early 15th century C.E. Copper alloy. Fundación
Marcelino Botín/Museum for African Art.
 © National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria. Photo, Karin L. Willis 
The works in "Dynasty and Divinity" date from between the 12th and 15th centuries. Great caches of statuary were first discovered accidentally during 1938 construction projects in the city of Ife. In Yoruba legend, Ife is the site of the world's beginning. The Yoruba people deified both ancestors and deceased rulers, and worshiped a pantheon of preexisting deities that numbered in the hundreds The show's catalogue explains that more than language, metal working, beading, ceramics, and weaving were the primary vehicles for recording the culture's fundamental stories and values.

Our era studies foreign cultures through anthropological research and documentation. It's common to look at the ancient art of far-away places through an academic lens with barely a comment on art's transcendent aspects. It's not just scientific customs of objectivity that allow this to happen. Encounter any foreign thing and we all become children: "What's that big thing he's holding?" "Why does that man dress so funny?" Simple curiosity always leads us to investigate the properties of something new—unless we allow an investment in sophistication to quash that natural reaction. But satisfying the identification level of curiosity won't necessarily lead us to questions art asks. Observers (often led by exhibit labeling) can get so caught up with tribal manners, dress, and social customs that any universal aspects of the art escape notice.

For this reason, I leave the fine points of Yoruba history and culture to others. The show's catalogue, in fact, provides thorough essays about historical, technical, and sociological topics, and, moreover, it beautifully documents the show. The Amazon link will take you to copies.

What I have to say is about portraiture and the representation of individuals. How can there be a more piquant subject than the human form, from any period or place, in any medium or style? Put the human image in any costume or setting; represent our own figure in any style however abstract or minimal; and we will  always find someone we will relate to, every bit as exposed and elusive as we ourselves are.

Apparently few full Ife figures survive. The 20" copper alloy figure (loosely dated around 1365 C.E.) labeled Figure of a king is a fascinating place to start because of some tantalizing contrasts.
Figure of a king. Ita Yemoo, Ife. 14th century C.E. Copper alloy.
Fundación Marcelino Botín/Museum for African Art. 
© National Commissionfor Museums and 
Monuments, Nigeria. Photo, Juan Jesus Blázquez 

The king wears a large, upright ornament that makes his headdress a crown and necklaces of extravagant number and sizes. He grasps apparently ceremonial items in his hands All of his ornaments seem to have deserved close attention, for they are depicted in great, repetitive detail. Every bead on every necklace; every detail of the crown is articulated. What does the detail signify? Does this specificity indicate the value of his accouterments, and thus reflect the wearer's? Or does this simply manifest a certain visual tradition?

In contrast to the minute renderings of costume details, though, the considerable proportion of the statue's surface represents skin and cloth and is smooth (though somewhat pocked by corrosion). The proportion of smooth to worked surface calls attention to another issue of proportion, that being the immensity of the head and feet in relation to the round-bellied torso of His Highness.

The king's feet are long and broad enough to support him (or they once did: A discreet metal brace insures the statue's posture for the exhibition). His stance is balanced both literally and metaphorically. It is natural, poised, secure.

When I return the king's gaze, I find myself looking not into blankness but into the future, reflected in his eyes from somewhere behind me. He seems to contemplate the past and the future at once. His expression isn't empty, but specific to a monarch. It's the gaze of a person who divines events and morality; the look of a person who holds everything up. His presence is tremendous, and that presence is communicated through the steady gaze of the outsized face, the secure stance, and a stillness as real as it is difficult to describe.

The Figure of a king wonderfully fuses literal realism (ornamental detail), naturalistic detail (the healthy roundness of the figure) and the spiritual, transcendent portrait of a ruler through manipulation of body proportions.

Head, Wunmonije Compound, Ife. 14th-early 15th century C.E.Copper alloy.
Fundación Marcelino Botín/Museum for African Art. 
© National Commission for Museums and Monuments, 
Nigeria. Photo, Karin L. Willis 

Most of the "Dynasty and Divinity" collection is heads and faces so beautiful that I wasn't moved to speculate about the lost bodies. This head was found with many others in the first, serendipitous excavation at Ife. The king (above) came from a different location; it stands just short of 2' high. This Head is life-sized. Like many, it bears some traces of red and black paint. Like some, it has cicatrized (scarred) skin and lips. Some heads have one or the other; some have neither.

If I had a close up view of the king figure's head, it would be clearer that it is similar to this in being clearly a portrait head. This one is indisputably the face of an individual. The face's shape and  unique expression are clearly indicated by musculature around the mouth, descending between the eyes and nose, and arising from the outside edges of the brows into the forehead. He is big and strong: His neck is almost as wide as his head. The rings circling his neck do not run all the way around, but apparently represent folds of flesh meant to suggest, like the king's belly, his economically comfortable status.

In this Head, as in most in the show, we find a tranquil, dignified presence with the transcendent gaze. Because the Ife artists had the skill to communicate distinct individuality, this gaze, characteristic of the sculptures, must reflect a common outlook or valued attitude—certainly a recognized demeanor—among the people. I think that the stillness represents qualities of genuine nobility: endurance, far-sightedness, determination, and wisdom. This is the representation of a person who distinguishes adulthood from childhood; who understands justice; a person who would perform hand-to-hand combat fearlessly and suffer his wounds stoically.

Head with crown shares the characteristics of the others: The crown, presented with minute, regular details, sits atop a portrait head that exhibits noble bearing and attitude. The shapely face with high, round cheeks, receding chin, and slender neck shows it to be the portrait of a particular individual.
Head with crown. Wunmonije Compound, Ife. 14th-early 15th century
 C.E. Copper alloy.Fundación Marcelino 
Botín/Museum for African Art © National 
Commission for Museums andMonuments, 
Nigeria  Photo, Karin L. Willis 

Beyond the air of the kingly or otherworldly that emanates from each sculpture, each has its unique physical features that we respond to. I find this regal face particularly beautiful. Nothing in the exhibition's labeling or the catalogue suggests that any of the figures is feminine. Yet this one stands out for me for its feminine features-the roundness of the cheeks, the slender neck, the small jaw. Or perhaps this is a boy? I find this work particularly poignant for the delicacy of the head and features that bear such a large crown and so grave a dignity of aspect.
Head. Ita Yemoo, Ife. 12th-15th century C.E. Terra-cotta..
Fundación Marcelino Botín/Museum for African Art. 
© National Commission for Museums
 and Monuments, Nigeria. Photo, Karin L. Willis 

Among the terra cotta sculptures, another Head touches me in a similar way. Once again, I find myself wondering if the subject wasn't a woman or a youth, because of the round face and the slight jaw. I find something especially touching in the protrusion of the underlip and in the unusual down cast eyes. The bowed head under the extremely ornate crown suggests a pensive or hesitant air that is completely missing in the upright heads with their secure outlooks. This departure from the most common expression in the show is perhaps the most thrilling example of the sensitivity of the Ife artists' portraiture, and to their  naturalistic practice.

The piece I'd take home from the show, though, would have to be Head called 'Lajuwa,' a terra cotta that the gallery notes speculate represents Lajuwa, a palace chamberlain who, in legend, killed the king (the Ooni) and usurped the throne by dressing in his garments. Lajuwa was caught and beheaded but has neverthess come to be cherished as the protector of servants.
Head called “Lajuwa.” Ife Palace, Ife. 12th-15th century C.E. Terra-cotta.,Fundación Marcelino Botín/Museum for African Art.
 © National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria. 

Karin L. Willis 
This is the only sculpture suggested to represent a character instead of an actual person. Still, it must have been been modeled from an individual, for the face is unique. Its expression, too, is unique, for haing the hint of a smile in it. Compare this to the faces of the three figures, above—two crowned and one not—and this one lacks intensity by comparison. The set of the mouth is not so firm. In none of the others are the lips even slightly open, as these are at the corners. Is it the softer mouth that puts light in the eyes, keeping their gaze in the present? Does the lighter affect have anything to do with the upward tilt of the nose, which is, again, unlike any of the others'?

Perhaps Lajuwa is subtly different because he is not represented as royalty. Whether he is read as a malefactor of legend or as a person who wears only a cap, not a crown, his beautiful, filled-out face tells a subtly different story. That such differences are present yet so difficult to define is one breathtaking aspect of the artistry of ancient Ife sculptors.

For an interesting blog with pictures of African tribal masks and costume, you might look at Loxolop Facade.