The arts of Ancient Ife and the royal arts of the Yoruba peoples

Discuss the significance of the form and meanings of the arts of Ancient Ife and the royal arts of the Yoruba peoples. Discuss the different types of historic interactions and power relationships with Europeans as expressed in Afro-Portuguese ivories and the royal arts of the Benin Kingdom.

In the exhibition titled Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, we learn how Ife art tried to juxtapose misery and glory, deformity and beauty, master and slave, disease and health. Made of copper alloys and terra cottas, the royal arts of the Yoruba people were informed by the myth of Obatala, whose legend is the art of deformity or sin or illness. Royal personages were commonly immortalized through art. Ooni, the ruler of Ife, wore elaborate textiles in the fourteenth century. The buffalo horn filled with medicines is a symbol of his authority. The staff on his hand also signifies authority. He also wears a beaded collar which usually holds a pair of bows like those representing the badge of office of the king.

Introducing the exhibition, author Enid Schildkrout documents the notion of the deity in Yoruba culture. Often representing otherworldly forces, they also include the whole of ancestry. The deified forbears are not thought to be dead, but as having descended into the earth and hence becoming part of nature. The Yoruba thus place nature as the starting and endpoint of their lives. It is also a way of linking their humanity with divinity. There is also a lack of definite distinction between politics and religion, as often they are both one and the same. Likewise, no distinctions are made between that which is secular and that which is sacred, for in the ancient world of the Yoruba, superstition, and not scientific inquiry, was the only means of understanding the world. It is for this fluidity of their culture that the art is so contradictory. We see in the copper-alloy and terra cotta figures and symbols, the intermixing of beauty, power, infirmity and death, all given equal expression.

One of the features of Yoruba art, as illustrated in the exhibition, is striations of various types seen on human faces and bodies. These could either represent body art worn by men and women of ancient Ife. It is also interpreted to be scar marks of tribesmen acquired during their hunting expeditions or combat with rival tribes. But the more plausible explanation is that from the angle of tradition. Even as recent as early twentieth century, indigenous Nigerian populations were documented to perform scarification and painting of their faces in certain ritual contexts. Perhaps this continuing tradition is an indication of the meaning of the striations. However, it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly they represented in the surviving art. Some archaeologists have even proposed that the striations may actually be beaded veils that Yoruba rulers wore to conceal their faces.

1 2 3