Title: Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Power and Identity, c. 1300
Author: Suzanne Preston Blier
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, UK
ISBN: 9781107021662 (Hardback)
Price: £70 (US$115)
By Tajudeen Sowole
(Published in The Guardian Nigeria, Sunday, August 30, 2015)Between archaeologists and historians, ancient Ife cultural objects appear to have become so complex such that scientific and literary sources hardly find a common ground, so suggests a new book, Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Power and Identity, c. 1300, written by Suzanne Preston Blier.
A Cambridge University Press publication, the 574-page book is enriched with photographs of iconic Ife objects, graphic illustrations in plates of textures of some of the sculptures as well as maps that animate changes in political and trade routes from the 1300 (circa) starting point of the subject till modern period.
The author, a professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, U.S. anchors her Ife findings on the city’s identity as a centre of knowledge in Yoruba ancient civilization. Blier distils the city's history and cultural values as vital factors from which she raises quite a number of issues in the works of some noteable archaeologists and historians.
Blier, author of several award-winning books on architecture, art and African royal art however throws her hat of pedigree into the ring of Ife culture scholarship by excavating some new leads that could add to the texture of Ife art vocabulary. Also, revealing are the challenges said to have been faced by Ife artists, across generations, sometimes leading to tragedy, in the hands of tyrant monarchs.
It is a well-known fact that art of ancient Ile-Ife origin has been established as one of the major proofs of black African civilisation of medieval age, perhaps much earlier. It is therefore not surprising that Blier's new book, published in 2015 gives so much research space to the behavioural or anthropological aspects of Ife people, and Yoruba in general to arrive at quite a depth of scholarly work that challenges as well as stretches academic debate on the subject.
The 62-page Introduction of the book starts with the highlights of the author's physical journey to the modern city of Ife, in the current Osun State, Southwest of a nation state Nigeria. She notes the depth of spirituality that surrounds Ife, particularly the myths that come with "fear", and also prejudice expressed in the western academia as 'closed' Ife world.
For Blier, closure as expressed by the western academia must have been too suspicious to be real; so, she set out to extend and explore the vast Ife art. While acknowledging Ife as the centre for over 40 million Yoruba at home and the Diaspora, the impact of the city's influence, according to Blier, traverses cultural space of the natives; the people's artistic values resonate beyond the Yoruba nation.
"When one speaks of the sixteen historical Yoruba Kingdoms embraced within the Ife political sphere, it is not only to this mythic primacy and the larger regional economic and diplomatic system that one is speaking, but also to the enduring imprint of Ife's artistic legacy in the world more generally."
She notes how the name 'Ife' is pronounced and spelt differently across areas of influence. For examples, from Itsekiri to Benin (south-south Nigeria), even as far back as having link to an ancient country "Youfi (Ife)" in southeast of Mali Kingdom, traces of generational spread of the human seeds sowed at Ile-Ife appears to have grown beyond a geographical sphere origin.
From the accounts of early European explorers, brothers John and Richard Landers’ mid nineteenth century adventure, to missionary, David Hinderer's experience, the spiritual efficacy of Ife, as a centre of Yoruba ancient civilisation was not in doubt, Blier writes.
Unearthing one of the periods that led to the emergence of the reach figural sculptures from Ife - some of which were said to have been excavated by the controversial German archaeologist, Leo Frobenius - Blier traces their production to the city's internal conflicts that often led to wars. From the author's interaction with resource persons of the city's nativity, the sculptures were an extension of such strife, specifically as windows in healing the wounds of conflicts.
Having given diverse definitions, interpretation and perception of risk from western perspective, Blier writes that for the people of Ife and Yoruba in general, risk is a crucial consideration in cultural values.
Between academic and archaeological research, quite a number of works on Ife art objects that the author either faults or commends are referenced. For example, she finds Frank Willert’s work inaccurate. On Willert’s work, put in CD, and titled ‘The Art of Ife: A Descriptive Catalogue and Database’ as the researcher’s "most important contribution," Blier laments the shortcoming of the efforts as lacking crucial scientific details. "Unfortunately, the work does not include scientific reports of Ife's various archaeological sites (some of which, if they have existed, seems to have been lost)."
Apart from the work of former Director-General of National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), the late Omotoso Eluyemi, whose "conclusion" she says "have faced scrutiny," Blier appears to have further found other indigenous archaeologists and historians more resourceful, particularly in her writing Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba. She cites the efforts of Babatunde Agbaje-Williams (1991, 2005) and Akinwunmi Ogundiran (2001; 2002a 2005). In fact, the author discloses that her research "has benefited" from the works of quite a number of scholarly contents done by the natives, particularly that of "Ife geologist, Akin Ige."
Among other crucial aspects touched in the Introduction are ‘Dating Early Ife Art’, ‘History and Iconography: Sculptures That Tell Stories’, ‘Art and Regional Trade: Ife on the Niger and ‘Odudua's Offspring: Regalia and Shared Cosmology’.
In the beginning of each of the chapters that are grouped under two parts, Blier's deep understanding of the subject, particularly as displayed in some of the Yoruba proverbs as well as similitudes from revered western artists and thinkers is not in doubt.
Under Part 1: ‘Art, Risk and Identity’, the first chapter titled ‘Making Art: Artists, Subjects, Materials and Patrons’ dwells on several risks that the Ife artists have faced across generations. It takes off with post-modern natural tragedy, particularly of a prominent family, Ile Asude (the house of those who smelt brass), and goes back to centuries. In fact, there was a time, according to a reference of the author, when one Ife monarch, possibly the revered Obalufon 'ordered the slaughter of all members of lineage of artists...,' to prevent what the king thought as a future 'deception.’
From challenges such as natural disaster, conflicts and hazards of materials that the Ife artists - across generations - have been facing, Blier argues that the artists are among the most resilient and experimental in the world. This part also, treats, deeply, the usage of materials such as copper alloy, terracotta, iron as well as the less documented wood, leather, basket and ivory among others.
Appropriation of art, perception and viewing, within the Yoruba belief in the strength of native eyeliner (tiiro) and its scientific proficiency, form early start of the second chapter ‘Experiencing Art: Sight, Site, And Viewership’. Other areas of focus in the chapter include perception of spirituality, which figural sculptures are perceived to radiate.
In a world of visual arts that is fast blurring the line between art and craft, the book's focus on Post-Florescence era pottery is quite interesting.
Still on perception, chapter-3, ‘If Looks Could Kill: Aesthetics and Political Expression’ revisits the awesomeness of the Ife artists of old in creating sculpture of great naturalism depth. However, the sincerity of the artists in depicting figures, particularly faces, appears to have also exposed health or status issues, as Blier notes that "Ideas of fullness and eating in Yoruba contexts such as these also bear clear-cut associations with political power, risk and danger."
Underscoring the consciousness of creating art with the social challenges in mind is found in a topic 'Abnormalities of Disease, Deformity and Social Wrong’, still under the same chapter.
The last of the chapters in Part-1, ‘Embedding Identity: Marking the Ife Body’ attempts to unravel the interpretations and importance of the different tradition of patterns. "Most explanations of Ife body marks remain inadequate because they fail to address why striated lines (and other marking forms exist on some Ife images but not others)."
But further into the topic, Blier argues that, a monarch, Obalufon II, was likely responsible for some changes in facial markings. "King Obalufon II, I contend, is the most likely to have promoted facial marking changes after his return to power, for two masks: one of terracotta and one of copper."
Four chapters are also grouped in the concluding Part -II, ‘Politics, Representation, And Regalia’. It starts with ‘A Gallery of Portrait Heads: Political Art in Early Ife’, a chapter that dwells on royal portraitures, mostly those that are rarely documented, at least in the common Ife vocabulary of art. Her source, Ife's Wunmonije Compound, has "remarkable metal heads of the works from ancient Ife."
Between the deities of Yoruba traditional religion and some animals, there lies a connection, except that the animals appear to be less focused by the artists. But Blier in the sixth chapter, ‘Animal Avatars: Art, Identity, and The Natural World,’ gives an insight. For example, the author discloses that one of the Ife legends explains to her "the importance of fish and various other animal species," in Obatala deity belief.
The last two chapters are ‘Crowning Glory: the Art and Politics of Royal Headgear,’ and ‘Battling with Symbols: Staffs of Office, Menhirs and Thrones.’
Among many areas highlighted in the ‘Conclusion’ pages of the book is the fact that the most reliable source of scholarly reference on Ife art lies in the undocumented works that remain within the natives.
"The ongoing retention of Ife's ancient arts in various sites under the watchful eyes of local priests and chiefs, is one of the reasons that we know so much as we do about these early master pieces, particularly since archaeological evidence is so sparse."
Blier is an historian of African art and architecture in both the History of Art and Architecture and African and African-American Studies Departments. She is a member of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science
Her works include a debut book, The Anatomy of Architecture: Ontology and Metaphor in Batammaliba Architectural Expression (Cambridge University press; paperback, Chicago University Press, 1987), which won the Arnold Rubin Prize. Her second book, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power (1995) received the Charles Rufus Morey Prize. Other books include: African Royal Art: The Majesty of Form (1998); Butabu: Adobe Architecture in West Africa (2003); and Art of the Senses: Masterpieces from the William and Bertha Teel Collection (Editor 2004).
From 2013-2015 Blier served as a member of the Board of Directors of the College Art Association where she was Vice President for Publications; in 2011 two of her articles were selected for the Centennial Anthology of the journal.
Blier, with David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr is currently editing The Image of the Black in African and Asian Art (Harvard University Press). A forthcoming volume addresses: Picasso’s Demoiselles: Pornography, Primitivism, and Darwin.