Saturday, October 26, 2013

Ife - Yoruba Portrait Sculpture

The Yoruba city of Ife in West Africa was the birthplace of a particularly incredible series of portrait sculptures in the 12th-14th century AD. I find it particularly interesting that a tradition of highly skilled naturalist sculpture developed independently from the Western Greco-Roman tradition. Evidently an interest in depicting people and things as they are is not necessarily unique to the West.

Head, Possibly a King - terracotta
Ife King - bronze
Mask with vertical line facial markings - terracotta
King Obalufon II - copper
The Yoruba artistic tradition was centered around the concept of àṣẹ, the source of divine power that runs through all things on Earth. The head (orî) is considered to be the center of the àṣẹ in human beings. This philosophical understanding is the basis for the varied and exceptional sculpture of the Yoruba kingdom.

The concept of the inner and outer head is also a central feature of the Yoruba portrait. These images above are sculptures completed in the city of Ife, following the depiction of the outer head (its naturalistic physiognomy). The city of Ife was particularly proficient during the period of the 13th to 15th century in creating highly naturalistic sculpture work, possibly by a handful of artists working in a close-knit setting.

Yoruba portrait sculpture can also be highly symbolic to better depict the inner head in its metaphysical state - here I have only posted the naturalistic "outer head" sculptures due to their visual accessibility to us. In the sculpture of King Obalufon II, it is interesting to note that the purity of the copper (96.8-99.7%) surpasses the sculptures of Ancient Greece, Rome, the Italian Renaissance and Chinese bronze casters. (Blier)

Although we do not have a great understanding of who these artists were or their technical process, their work speaks for itself and crosses time and space to reach artists and art appreciators. I hope you can appreciate it.

1 comment:

  1. After reading this I am definitely intrigued by the Yoruba culture, at a glance it resonates well with my own metaphysical perspectives. I will do some research to learn more about it.