The Financial Times’s Mark Hudson looks at the British Museum’s show of Nigerian bronze heads.
Now 12 of these heads and one half-length figure are to be displayed at the British Museum, along with a wealth of terracotta sculpture, pottery and other objects, almost all of it lent by Nigeria’s Commission for Museums and Monuments. While much of the terracotta work is extraordinarily refined, it is the bronze heads that tug most at the imagination. Does their realism and technical sophistication provide evidence of links between tropical Africa and the ancient Mediterranean? Or was medieval Africa far more advanced than was previously imagined? As our views on Africa have developed over the past century, the political dimensions of such questions have been magnified.
A web of intrigue and controversy surrounds these extraordinary objects. It centres on the most famous of them, the Ori Olokun – the so-called Head of the Sea God – unearthed by Frobenius in 1910. A freebooting Indiana Jones figure, part visionary, part charlatan, Frobenius arrived in Ife, the spiritual capital of the Yoruba people, with the aim of finding evidence of a lost “white” African civilization. The Yoruba are Nigeria’s largest ethnic group, numbering some 35m. According to Yoruba beliefs, Ife is the place where the world began. While the city’s heyday lasted from 1000 to 1600AD, its ruler, the Oni of Ife, retains a degree of spiritual authority in beliefs that spread into the neo-African religions of the New World, including Voodoo and Santería.
But in the early 1900s such things were little appreciated by outsiders. While Frobenius was one of the first Europeans to recognise that Africa had a civilisation, he believed that the sophistication he observed in the continent’s art and oral literature could only be the result of ancient contact with Europe. And he took possession of perhaps the greatest artefact to come out of the continent, so he boasted, for “six pounds and a bottle of Scotch”.
Bronzes of West Africa (Financial Times)