Saturday 26 May 2012

Ancient Ife art… proof of Africa’s contribution to world civilisation

 By Tajudeen Sowole
One of the works, Obalufon mask (copper, 14th – early 15th century).
  When the touring exhibition of Ife artefacts berthed in Lagos a week ago as Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, it was a celebration of what has been established as one of Africa’s templates of pre-colonial civilisation.

  The opening ceremony of the exhibition, which was a major event of a week-long International Museum Day (IMD) 2012 themed Museums In A Changing World: New Challenges, New Inspiration also revisited the ancient Kingdom of Ife, as one of Africa’s earliest centres of commerce 15 centuries ago.
The Ooni of Ife,Alayeluwa, Oba Okunade Sijuade, Olubuse II arriving at the opening in his car
   In 2007, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Museum for African Art, New York, U.S. and Fundacion Marcelino Botin of Spain started working on the collaborative exhibition of artefacts of Ife origin. The exhibition, however, did not take off until 2010 when it opened at Foundacion Botin in Santander and Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Madrid, Spain. Consisting of works on loan from NCMM, it was also shown as Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures From West Africa at the British Museum, U.K., and moved to Houston, Richmond and Indianapolis, U.S. between last year and early this year.

  Early this year, the works were returned to Nigeria accompanied by American conservation experts.

  Although His Royal Highness, Alayeluwa, Oba Okunade Sijuade, Olubuse II, the Ooni of Ife, Ile-Ife was present at the Lagos opening, Prince Aderemi Sijuade read his speech. Tracing the civilisation of Ife, Ooni Sijuade disclosed, “the Kingdom was created by God Almighty before 10000BC and 8000 years before Abraham, the Jewish and Arab patriarch.”

  He argued that scientific evidences “point to Ife as the mother home of mankind.” 

The D-G, NCMM, Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman and the Ooni of Ife Alayeluwa, Oba Okunade Sijuade, Olubuse II during the Lagos opening of a touring exhibition Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria.
   The royal father recalled how the long history of Ife, in world civilisation, influenced the colonialists to treat Ife with due respect. He explained that the principal leaders in the amalgamation of Southern and Northern Protectorates of Nigeria such as Lord Lugard, colonial secretary, Lord Harcourt and Chairman, Royal Nigeria Company, Lord Cartwright “left Ile-Ife intact because up until 1904, Ife had boundaries with Lagos colony.”

  Earlier in her speech, the curator of the exhibition and Chief Curator Emerita, Museum for African Art, New York, U.S., Dr. Enid Schildkrout described Ife as one of West Africa’s earliest city states, at the period of large scale trading and growing academics in Islam across the Sahara, particularly with the Islamic University of Timbuktu, Mali being at its peak as centre of learning.

  She argued that as part of the increasing sophistication in trading and learning across West Africa, “Ife’s artisans produced colourful glass heads, metal-smiths became experts in casting extraordinary portraits in copper. Women and men created compelling images of animals and humans in clay.”

  Schildkrout traced what she described as the subsided wealth of Ife in the 16th century to exploitation and colonisation by European, which “shifted trade to Africa’s Atlantic coast, while regional wars disrupted life in the Ife region.”

  However, there seemed to be a resilience of Ife civilization as the curator noted that despite these changes, Ife has remained the Yoruba people’s spiritual centre for more than eight hundred years. The spiritual and creative influence of Ife, she argued, resonates beyond Nigeria. “There is no doubt that Ife art also inspires people with ancestral ties to Nigeria, whether they are in Brazil, New York, or Beijing, to feel pride in their homeland.” 
    On display were more than 100 works in diverse medium such as terracotta, stone and brass. These include, religious and cultural images such as Olokun (Head With Crown), Obalufon and other works of animal images.
Chief Curator Emerita, Museum for African Art, New York, U.S., Dr. Enid Schildkrout speaking at the opening.

  As the catalogue of the exhibition is being awaited, perhaps for more details on the origin and excavation of the artefacts, German ethnologist, Leo Frobenius whose mission uncovered most of the Ife artefacts would remain controversial.

  Reason: one of the most important pieces on display at the Dynasty and Divinity… show, Olokun (Head With Crown), has been described by experts as a replica of what Frobenius excavated in Ife between 1910 and 1911. The inscription attached to the mount of the work at the Onikan Museum says Possibly of early 20th century copy of a 14th to early 15th century original copper alloy from the Olokun Grove, Ife.   

  Suspicion by the British colonialists, over Frobenius’ excavation activities in Nigeria, according to sources, appeared to have been justified. For example, late museum boss, Ekpo Eyo had stated that “the original Olokun head described by Frobenius is now represented only by a copy; no one knows where the original is. It is not impossible that Frobenius could have arranged for its subsequent replacement with a copy.”

  Apparently, the original Olokun, and perhaps more works, were lost in transit between Frobenius and the British colonialists. 

  Revisiting the German’s mission in Nigeria, the British Museum, in a 2010 press statement recalled: “Frobenius was an uninvited if highly experienced, explorer and ethnologist, visiting Ife for just a few weeks and provoking arguments with most of the people he encountered. It is quite possible that he took the head and left behind a replica, as it was suggested in negotiations with the Ooni at that time. However, it could also be the case, as suggested by Frank Willet (another museum expert) that the reproduction was made sometime between 1910 and 1934, when it was brought to the palace for safekeeping.”

The Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke (left) and former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku.

ALSO stressing the Ife Kingdom of old as the centre of West Africa’s commerce and technology, former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, who was at the opening in Lagos, recalled how the British Museum, through an art exhibition, confirmed this assertion when it listed Ife monarch as one of the four greatest ancient kingdoms of the world.

  Others celebrated, according to Anyaoku (a member of trustees of the British Museum), are “Emperor of China, the Babylonian king, the Mobilula of the Aztec (now Mexico,) the ancient ruler of Russia and the Emperor Hadrian of Rome.”

  Anyaoku stressed that the creativity in the Ife artefacts is a testimony of Africa’s long technological advancement as “its cultural artefact has greatly contradicted the concept that Africans had no civilization until the Europeans came”.

  He added that Ife, to those who understand its importance “is widely referred to as the source; the source of life, Yoruba civilization and humanity.”

  Perhaps in the mood of the International Museum Day (IMD), the Director-General of NCMM, Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman, explained that the role and function of museums in modern day keep changing. Museums of today, he argued, are rated based on what they collect and exhibit. “Through studies, museums have attempted to reconcile many cultures which in time past look distant and distinct from each other. In objects and their collections, museums have been able to reconcile history, buttress it where possible and jettison irrelevances and fallacies.

From the Royal family of Ijora, the Ojora of Lagos, Otunba Adekunle Ojora and Olori Ojuolape.
  For the Ife exhibition, the D-G stressed that “the true story being told is that of the glory, glamour and splendour of the Ife Kingdom that flourished for centuries contrary to the erroneous belief that African had no civilization.”

  The Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke stated that for the artisans of old to have produced “such unique artefacts that have continued to generate response from all over the world, there is a testimony of the hard work which should be the basis of the launch pad of our technological advancement.”

  Oladipe Soyode, who represented State of Osun Governor, Ogbeni Rauf Argbesola, asserted that the Ife works for the Dynasty and Divinity exhibition “do not only celebrate the State of Osun, but the entire black race.”

   He stressed that the exhibition also has shown that “if culture is properly annexed through funding, the sector will contribute to Nigeria’s technological growth and poverty alleviation.”

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