Ife: Challenging the Notion of African Primitivism

“Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria” opens our eyes to the astonishingly realistic human figures cast in metal or terra cotta more than half a millennium ago in the ancient West African city-state of Ife (pronounced EE-fay). These elegant and captivating statues change the way we think of Africa and Africans, and for that reason this might be the most important African art exhibition anywhere right now.
Torso of a King, Ife (Nigeria), early-mid 16th century, copper alloy, H: 14 5/8 inches, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman © 2011)
Torso of a King, Ife (Nigeria), early-mid 16th century, copper alloy, H: 14 5/8 inches, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman © 2011)

Chances are that when you think of the term “African art” what comes to mind are figures and face masks carved out of wood.

Right?

Well, you’re not wrong. Most sub-Saharan art fits that description. But an exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond reveals another tradition that puts the lie to this stereotype.

Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria” opens our eyes to the astonishingly realistic human figures cast in metal or terra cotta more than half a millennium ago in the ancient West African city-state of Ife (pronounced EE-fay). These elegant and captivating statues change the way we think of Africa and Africans, and for that reason this might be the most important African art exhibition anywhere right now.

Click here or on the images to read my review in The Washington Post.

Jason Edward Kaufman

Heads from Wunmonjie Compound, Ifef (Nigeria), 14th-early15th-century, cooper, H: ca. 11-13 inches, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman © 2011)
Heads from Wunmonjie Compound, Ifef (Nigeria), 14th-early15th-century, cooper, H: ca. 11-13 inches, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman © 2011)
Mask called "Obalufon," Ife (Nigeria), 14th-early 15th-century, cooper, H: 13 inches, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman © 2011)
Mask called “Obalufon,” Ife (Nigeria), 14th-early 15th-century, cooper, H: 13 inches, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman © 2011)
Head, Ita Yemoo, Ife (Nigeria), 12th-15th century, terracotta, H: 9 1/8 inches, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman © 2011)
Head, Ita Yemoo, Ife (Nigeria), 12th-15th century, terracotta, H: 9 1/8 inches, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman © 2011)
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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.

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  • Gary Tinterow and Modern Art at the Metropolitan

    August 26, 2010, 1:16 am

    Gary Tinterow’s Contemporary Art Agenda for the Metropolitan Museum

    In a wide-ranging interview, the chief curator of modern and contemporary art discusses collection sharing, acquisitions strategy, renovation of the Wallace Wing, negotiations to lease the Whitney’s Breuer building, and more.

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