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Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) Opens Dynasty and Divinity Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria

Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, an exhibition devoted to the art of Ife, the ancient city-state of the Yoruba people of West Africa, will be on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art from July 8, 2011, through January 15, 2012.

These are among the most celebrated works ever created in Africa and for the first time they have been brought together with other objects from the same era, resulting in a fascinating depiction of Ife. Terra-cotta and brass figures show it to have been a dynamic society where idealized and serene citizens coexisted with their opposites—the diseased, the malformed, the old, and the imprisoned. Trade items illustrate Ife’s ancient prosperity. Its prized glass-beads—worn by royalty—were also exported across north and west Africa. Its metal casting technology was highly advanced, and is represented by works both from Ife and from neighboring regions that adopted the technology. Rare stone sculptures from sacred forest groves also present Ife as a place of vital ritual importance.

Technically and visually the artworks of ancient Ife are among the most remarkable in the world, including near life-size heads and figures of humans. Dynasty and Divinity: Ife in Ancient Nigeria features the artistic accomplishments of this unique civilization in what is today southwestern Nigeria, and examines how factors of dynastic power and divine authority shaped the exceptional arts from Ife.

Over the course of some four centuries, artists at Ife created sculpture that ranks among the most aesthetically striking and technically sophisticated in the world. Dynasty and Divinity reveals the extraordinarily creative range of Ife art through a diversity of objects that includes handsome idealized portrait heads, exquisite miniatures, expressive caricatures of old age, lively animals, and sculptures showing the impressive regalia worn by Ife’s kings and queens. Together, these illuminate one of the world’s greatest art centers and demonstrate not only the technological sophistication of Ife artists, but also the rich aesthetic language they developed in order to convey cultural concerns.

The sculptures in the exhibition express the dignity and self-assurance readily associated with the idea of dynasty and the violence and misfortune that could befall human beings. Several superbly crafted copper alloy and terra-cotta heads and figures are expressive representations of the notion of authority, while startling representations of disease and deformity, rendered in stone and terra-cotta, show the afflictions that may result from both divine and worldly forces.

Image: Head with Crown. © National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria. Photo: courtesy: Museum for African Art/Fundación Botín. All photographs: Karin L. Willis

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