Among the several surprising exhibitions in London at the moment is the British Museum's Kingdom of Ife: sculptures from West Africa.   Like many people, I had vaguely seen some of the sculptures - such as the "Ori Olokun" head, because it was used as the logo for an all-African sporting event in 1973, and had managed to impinge on my consciousness.  But though I was aware of the Benin bronzes, "Ife" was not even a word I had come across before.

Ife is the "spiritual heartland" says the BM publicity, of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, the Republic of Benin and the many descendents of the ancient Yoruba people living all over the world. Ife is therefore the birthplace of many of the highest achievements in art and culture of the whole of Africa - especially sculpture, carved, modeled and cast - from the 12th through 15th  centuries. Ife was then a thriving city-state in what is now modern Nigeria, with good communications and trade relations that made the area prosper.

         Many of the 100 objects in the show (in the Round Reading Room until 6th June) are portrait sculptures; and this is probably explained by Yoruba religious practices, in which important people - kings, queens, chiefs - were deified at their death. This slightly begs the question, as it assumes that these works are likenesses of individuals, which doesn't somehow seem likely or all of them on first inspection.

For example, there's a group of "almost life-size copper alloy heads which reveal an idealized, naturalistic uniformity" even though each one of them "has notable individual characteristics. Their similarities lead scholars to speculate that they "were produced over a relatively short time, maybe in a single workshop." To me these seem idealized only in the  sense that, say, Modigliani's faces are idealized - elongated and stylised, perhaps, but still recognizably belonging to different human beings. The most celebrated find of Ife objects was in 1910 by the German Leo Frobenius. Like many of his contemporaries, he simply could not bring himself to believe that the pieces he collected were African, so conjectured that he'd stumbled upon the treasures of the lost continent of Atlantis - and moreover, that the Yoruba deity Olokun was identical to Poseidon.

         One of the reasons for Frobenius's skepticism was technological: all the copper-alloy sculptures use lost-wax casting, and it was hard for the explorer (and even those who followed him) to accept that Africans had such sophisticated technology so early - though it is now known that there were several iron-working and copper-mining sites in West Africa in the first millennium BC, and cire perdu casting was used in Ibo-Ukwu (says the splendid catalogue) in the 9th and 10th centuries AD. These ravishing objects have mostly been loaned by Nigerian museums, are scheduled to tour North America through 2012, and shouldn't be missed.

         Another extraordinarily beautiful show is at the National Portrait Gallery until the 20th June - The Indian Portrait 1560-1860. The NPG claims it's the first ever exhibition devoted to Indian portraits, and also that they have found a "lost" lifesize portrait of the Emperor Jahangir (1617) that "is the largest painting to come from the Mughal empire." Though it appeared in a saleroom catalogue in 1995, it "has never previously been seen." The sixty pieces in this show aren't all masterpieces, but a large number of them are just that, including a pair of pages from the Padshahnama belonging to the queen; a sexually explicit but somehow not pornographic painting of an act of copulation, owned by the British Library; a wonderful picture of a fat Hindu holy man from the collection of Sven Gahlin;  and two delicious pictures from Howard Hodgkin's great collection - a watercolour portrait (c. 1685) of a disproportionately large Raja Bhupat Pal of Basholi smoking a huqqa, staring intently at a tiny servant holding the business end of the water-pipe, who is looking back just as hard  at his employer, and a gorgeous watercolour and gold portrait  by Haider Ali and Ibrahim Khan (c.1645) of a Sultan of Bijapur  and his most powerful minister, whisking the flies off his master, while riding a charming looking elephant, against a blue background.

March 22, 2010 11:58 AM | | Comments (0)

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