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HOME : Decorative Arts : African Sculptures : Ife Style Bronze Replica of the Seated Figure of Tada
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Ife Style Bronze Replica of the Seated Figure of Tada - DB.011 (LSO)
Origin: West Africa
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 13" (33.0cm) high
Collection: Decorative Arts
Medium: Bronze
Condition: Very Fine

Location: United States
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This beautifully-observed and charmingly- executed sculpture of a snake charmer pertains to a cultural tradition of enormous importance to the development of West African and even world art trends. The Ife people were at the very forefront of technological and aesthetic innovation, and their artworks count among the very earliest naturalistic anthropomorphic statuary in the world, significantly predating the European renaissance, and even today ranking among humanity’s greatest artistic achievements.

This piece represents a well-nourished male, sat cross-legged with the left leg splayed to the side and his right leg raised and with his right elbow resting on his knee. The modelling of his face is exceptionally fine, with a high forehead, arched brows, a tapering nose and relief-rimmed eyes, his head topped with a skullcap (which usually implies a certain social status in Ife art). His figure is rounded, with a plump stomach, rounded shoulders and naturalistic legs with spatulate feet. The arms are also well modelled, with expressionistically-rendered hands. He is dressed in a lattice-worked and pleated loincloth that reaches from the hips to the mid-thigh. He has a snake wrapped around his right wrist and held in the right hand, while the serpent continues to his left hand there his fingers grip it right behind the head.

The social role of this piece is uncertain; it may be unique. What is certain is that it must have been an important piece at the time it was made. Ife metalwork is the finest in the ancient world; their refinement – castings being only about 1/16th of an inch thick – was not equalled in the west until the 19th century. Despite using comparatively crude technologies based around the cire perdue (lost wax) casting technique, the Ife (and, to an extent, the Benin who followed them) were able to make it especially thin in the mould, and thus to capture fine, delicate surface detail. Early European explorers were so astonished by the fineness of these pieces that they refused to believe that the African populations had manufactured them, despite the fact that “classic” African features are depicted in every case. The Ife were also able to cast their pieces in almost pure copper, without recourse to zinc that is used today to make the metal flow easier; they achieved this using multi-section crucibles and complex moulds, although the finer details of their craft still elude us.

The Ife are best known for their sculptures of heads, which represent early kings and aristocrats, and which seem to have been used for public display, probably with textile costumes of some sort. Smaller pieces are less well understood. Various friezes and plaques are known, as are artefacts such as bells. The prevalence of heads may be in some way linked to the long-standing conviction that divine regality resides within the head of the king; this was a widespread belief in the Yoruba/Benin polity, and the Ife went so far as to remove the heads of dead kings and bury them around the eponymous town of Ife. There are counter- arguments to this, however, and the role of the heads (perhaps ancestors) remains uncertain. One-off pieces such as this are yet more so. Handling snakes was not something accorded a great deal of artistic significance in the Ife repertoire. Snakes themselves are not especially common in Ife works; one example is a ceramic vessel (Drewal and Pemberton 1989: 65) with a snake around the neck. However, the authors attribute no specific significance to this, and just talk of its compositional impact. No hints could be derived from the Yoruba, for although the multiplicity of animals in their art all had their own significance, snakes are usually omitted. In general – world – terms, snakes can symbolise everything from deceit to guardianship, poison, rebirth, vindictiveness and rebirth, according to various different faiths. In general terms, African groups tend to distrust, avoid and dislike snakes; their use as magical symbols in some tribes further heightens the significance of the. IT would probably have been intended to portray a person with magical or otherworldly powers, be they magico-religious or historico-mythological – that is, a shaman/witch doctor, or an ancestor. Whatever its significance, however, this is a striking and attractive piece of African art. - (DB.011 (LSO))


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