Medieval West African art at the British Museum
By Edwin Bentley
ALMOST a defining characteristic of humanity is our ability to justify and explain away our actions, however outrageous and harmful they may be. When money is involved, that ability has no limits. From the establishment of the first permanent Portuguese trading post in Elmina in what is now Ghana in 1471, Africa has continuously served as a place from which Europe can take out whatever it needs without any obligation to offer anything in return.
Africa was certainly very different from Europe, but those first European visitors had little interest in finding out about the totally unfamiliar, often frightening, always amazing cultures they encountered. Making money was, quite literally, the only concern. Africa offered huge possibilities for vast fortunes as capitalism replaced the old feudal order in Europe, and the merchant class became the powerbrokers of society.
The transatlantic slave trade developed as a huge international business. This was the trade that created from plantation agriculture in the Americas the capital needed to launch the Industrial Revolution in Britain.
The Atlantic slave trade in large part created racism as we know it today. Kwame Nkrumah emphasised that slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery. Slavery as such was always an economic, not a racist, proposition. But because the European ruling class treated and used Africans as beasts of burden and commodities, they inevitably became less than worthy of respect in European eyes. Put simply, Africans were classified as savages because the European capitalists used them as savages.
In defence of the international slave trade, European apologists claimed that slavery benefited the Africans, who were said to be sunk in misery from which they were incapable of rising. The African was presented as fundamentally sub-human, in need of the white man, whom he always acknowledged to be his superior.
Direct European colonialism in Africa only started in the latter part of the 19th century, and the old arguments that had previously justified slavery were used to propagate the idea that Africa had to be brought under European rule because the Africans were incapable of ruling themselves and needed to be civilised. Europe was, in fact, supposed to be doing Africa a tremendous favour as British and French troops razed villages to the ground, hanged and shot anyone who resisted, and destroyed local economies to clear vast areas for the cultivation of export crops and the industrial exploitation of mineral resources!
When the British army marched into Benin City in Nigeria in 1897, to assert British rule by looting everything of value, hanging local rulers and burning every building, the greatest trophies stolen were hundreds of medieval bronze plaques (actually made of brass). These were sold off and dispersed throughout Europe, and a good number are at present in the British Museum. Not surprisingly, the colonial authorities refused to accept that these works of art could have been created by Africans, but the Benin bronzes have since become powerful
emblems of West African culture.
However well-known the “bronze” casts and sculptures of Benin may be, an earlier African civilization had mastered the art of perhaps even more impressive depictions of the human form. This was the Yoruba kingdom of Ife, which flourished as a powerful city-state from 800 AD onwards. Ife is still regarded as the spiritual home of the Yoruba people of present-day Nigeria, a place where their culture started. It is literally a meeting place between heaven and earth, in the same way that Christians and Jews will venerate Jerusalem. The founder of Ife, Oranmiyan, came to be venerated as a man-God and father of all Yoruba people.
By the time of the British military invasion and destruction of the West African states in the 1890s, Ife had long sunk into decline. It had been eclipsed by Benin and Oyo. But the city retained its spiritual and cultural importance, even though it had never had military power or a standing army. The king of Ife – known as the ooni – had precedence as custodian of Yoruba identity and also of the legitimacy of the kings of the Edo state of Benin, who were originally from Ife. However powerful they became in their own right, kings of Benin always paid tribute to the ooni, as did the Yoruba rulers of Oyo.
Ife was the centre of worship of the creator gods Oduduwa and Orishinla, and the city was surrounded by religious shrines and sacred groves in the forest. The whole life of Ife was dominated by the cult of the gods in which everyone participated. Human and animal sacrifice was practised. Clay figures were kept on the altars of religious shrines as reminders of sacrifices that had been offered to the gods. Some of these were of animals, such as sheep and goats, but a good number depicted human victims, often with ropes around their necks waiting to be strangled.
Ife was a monarchy, but the ooni was always answerable to the council of chiefs and elders. His main role was as a cultural and religious figure, descendant of Oranmiyan the founder. The court of the ooni provided employment for a very large number of craftsmen and artists, who were organised in trade guilds to preserve their skills. Trade was essential, as the source of wealth, even reaching out across the Sahara desert to the Mediterranean. Slavery was a feature of everyday life, but slaves were integrated into families and clans, and the children of slaves were free.
The current exhibition “Kingdom of Ife: sculptures from West Africa” at the British Museum is the first opportunity in this country to experience treasures drawn largely from Nigerian museums, and organised jointly with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments. Anyone visiting this exhibition will seriously question the endlessly repeated statement that the Benin bronzes have to be kept in the British Museum because Africans are incapable of conserving their own patrimony.
The artistic heyday of Ife culture extended from the 11th to the 14th century, and the chief relics of this period are the many figures of the human form made of brass, copper, and terracotta. The style is completely life-like, and generally life-sized. The brass heads that figure so prominently in this exhibition were cast using the lost wax process. Firstly, the figure was carved out of wax. This was covered in soft clay, and then heated until the wax melted and could be poured out, leaving a clay mould. The craftsmen then repeatedly poured small amounts of molten brass into the clay mould, swirling it around to cover the inside with a uniform thin layer of metal. When it had all cooled, the clay was chipped away, leaving the hollow figure. Files and grinding stones were then used to put the finishing touches.
Anyone familiar with Benin metal work may come to the Ife exhibition expecting formal, almost caricatured human figures. But almost everything here is quite overwhelmingly naturalistic, the figures somehow filled with life and spirit. The finest sculptures of Greece and Rome amaze us with their anatomical exactness. But these African figures, whether of brass, copper, or terracotta, go one step further – they portray living, breathing human beings so perfectly that the viewer can understand the personality, the thoughts and the state of mind, of the subjects portrayed.
The first European study of the art of Ife was carried out at the beginning of the 20th century by the German archaeologist Leo Frobenius. Not surprisingly, with the racist attitudes of the time, Frobenius found it impossible to consider this as African art. At first, he thought that the work was Portuguese, and then came up with the theory that what he had found were relics of the land of Atlantis, rescued before it sunk beneath the waves! It was only with the excavation of eighteen metal figures in 1938 that the indigenous origin of Ife art became universally accepted.
Exquisite art can be enjoyed for its own sake, but the current exhibition at the British Museum also presents many aspects of the social and religious life of the city’s inhabitants. Readers of the New Worker will see much evidence of the structure of Ife society. The mere existence of these works of art testifies to a developed human society with plentiful supplies of food, extensive external trade, a centralised hierarchical administration and a profound sense of identity. Small details of daily life shed much light on our idea of medieval Africa – I was particularly fascinated by the fact that the roads of the city were paved with countless pieces of broken pottery, arranged in fishbone patterns like a mosaic. A section of this paving is on display here.
This exhibition can be enjoyed on so many levels; firstly, simply as great art. But it does even more urgently call our attention to the unsettling fact that civilisation is not simply European. The history of the world is more than just what white men did. This Yoruba art affirms the universality of human life, of the desire to explain and take control of our surroundings. Ife would have been a strange, apparently even barbaric society to European minds. But it was not inferior, simply very different. In Europe we rightly venerate the memory of the Greeks and the Romans, of Michelangelo and the Renaissance, and the science and technology of recent centuries. “The Kingdom of Ife: sculptures from West Africa” reminds us that we are also heirs of the human experience throughout the world. The Yoruba craftsmen of 800 years ago shared that same human life, and they had an extraordinary, perhaps unsurpassed, ability to preserve it for the future.
The exhibition “Kingdom of Ife” is at the British Museum until 6th June. Admission is £8. A very worthwhile audio visual guide with personal headphones is available for an additional £4.50. Allow at least two hours to see and appreciate everything.