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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Ife : Ife Style Head of a Queen
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Ife Style Head of a Queen - AM.140 (LSO)
Origin: Nigeria
Circa: 1400 AD to 1600 AD
Dimensions: 11" (27.9cm) high
Collection: African Art
Style: Ife
Medium: Terracotta
Condition: Extra Fine

Location: United States
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The relationship between the Ife, Benin and Yoruba Cultures is highly contentious. There are numerous technological and stylistic parallels but also highly distinctive cultural dichotomies. The ancient city of Ile-Ife is considered by many to be the starting point of almost all West African artistic traditions, from obscure beginnings in the second half of the first millennium BC to the early Middle Ages. The city continued until the 19th century, but was eclipsed from the 14th century onwards by the rapidly-expanding kingdom and city of Benin; both of these groups were eventually combined into what is currently known as the Yoruba polity.

This area was unique in Africa for the incredible quality and detail of their bronze and brass casting, which exceeded that of anywhere else in the world at the time. Unusually for African art, they were also extremely lifelike and naturalistic, which disproved many art historians’ assertions that African art was ‘primitive’ due to lack of ability. Ife metalworkers and sculptors were in great demand by the Benin Obas (kings) and courts, leading to considerable transfer of ideas and styles between the two cities. Most of their artistic oeuvres depict the ruling elites (especially the Obas – known as Oonis in Ife) as well as zoomorphic and general anthropomorphic figures, in addition to ‘cult’ objects of various forms and uncertain significance.

There is a general tendency for larger and more naturalistic works in Ife, while Benin bronzes – which assume a vast number of forms (from plaques to heads, leopards, portraits and boxes) – rapidly depart from naturalism and become decidedly expressionistic between the 16th and 19th centuries. Most free-standing Benin pieces tend to be decorated with floral or geometric designs on light-coloured metal, although large heads (usually more ornate and decorated than their Ife equivalents) are also known. Finally, comprehensive vertical or pointillate facial scarification is common in Ife pieces (stone, ceramic and metal) but not in Benin examples. This piece is therefore a classic example of the Ife style.

The head depicted is that of a young female, presumably a member of the royal family or their court. At just under one foot tall, the head stands on an integrated tubular neck that is ringed towards the base with a series of holes. While preservation issues have prevented a full understanding of these, it is likely that they were originally displayed while attached to a costume made of textile or reeds etc, and may even have been worn or danced like the more recent Yoruba or Ekoi headcrests.

The head is topped with a headscarf that covers the hair; it is therefore probably not a queen mother figure, for not only is she seemingly too young, but queen mothers were usually portrayed with tall, ornate hairpieces or headwear that is absent here. The face is beautifully rendered, with a flat, smooth forehead, high cheekbones, a slightly concave midface and a slight subalveolar prognathism that is typical of Native Nigerian groups. The eyes are well-delineated, open and expressive, while the nose is elongated, slender and well-modelled. The lips are full and slightly pursed as if in thought, which accords well with the serene, almost otherworldly impression that the face conveys.

The surface of the piece is well-preserved, permitting the small, round marks that have been impressed into the wet clay to be seen. While a full repertoire of these marks and their significance is required for the Ife, it is probable that these referred to the precise birthplace and ancestry of the individual portrayed, and would be understood by any member of the contemporary Ife populace. It is interesting to note that they are arranged in 2-3 strands that track across the cheeks from near the mouth towards the ears; this is reminiscent of the Yoruba habit of marking the cheeks with three scars in the same orientation. The quality of the artistry is spectacular. - (AM.140 (LSO))


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