Artists at Ife, the ancient Yoruba city state, created a unique sculptural corpus which ranks among Africa’s and the world’s most aesthetically striking and technically sophisticated. Dynasty and Divinity: Ife in Ancient Nigeria features the artistic accomplishments of this unique 12th- to 15th-century civilization in what is today southwestern Nigeria, and examines how factors of dynastic power and divine authority shaped the exceptional arts from Ife.
Technically and visually the artworks of ancient Ife are among the most remarkable in the world, including near life-size heads and figures of humans in terra cotta and bronze, some cast of nearly pure copper (a feat which the early Greeks, Italians, and Chinese never achieved). Dynasty and Divinity includes handsome idealized portrait heads, exquisite miniatures, expressive caricatures of old age, portrayals of horrifying diseases, monstrous figurations, lively animals, and an array of impressive regalia; a visual high point of the exhibition is a group of awe-inspiring, copper life-size portrait heads. The iconic complexity and variability of form reveal the extraordinarily creative range of Ife’s art makers, patrons, and viewers. Audiences today will experience one of the world’s greatest art complexes and appreciate not only the technological sophistication of these artists, but also the complex aesthetic language they developed to convey competing cultural concerns.
Until now there has been no broad-based museum exhibition outside of Ife itself focused exclusively on these works. Dynasty and Divinity, organized by the Museum for African Art, in collaboration with the Fundación Marcelino Botín of Santander, Spain, and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, will address critical issues of cultural identity, political conflict, diplomacy, and healing through the art of this early African polity.
The Nigerian government’s exceptional commitment to this project, with all loans coming exclusively from Nigerian museums, assures the inclusion of approximately 120 of the most famous and beautiful Ife objects in bronze, terra cotta, stone, and glass. With its accompanying catalogue, Dynasty and Divinity will present a new interpretation of ancient Ife art that addresses the political and religious realms in which these works were created and experienced.
The exhibition will open a European tour at the Fundación Marcelino Botín, Santander, Spain, in June 2009, have its first North American venue in New York at the Museum for African Art’s new building in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue and 110th Street, and subsequently tour to several major U.S. cities.