By Pamilerin Thompson
The arts of the Yoruba are as numerous as our deities, and many objects are placed on shrines to honor the gods and the ancestors. Beautiful sculptures are made from wood and brass and the occasional terracotta. The Yoruba also have varied masking traditions that have resulted in a great diversity of mask forms. Additional important arts for the Yoruba include pottery, weaving, beadworking, and metalsmithing.
The Yoruba people are a Nigerian ethnic group that inhabit West Africa. Today, they are found around the globe but historically resided in what is now known as Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. These areas constituted what was once known as ‘Yorubaland’. Additionally, in oral history, the origin of the Yoruba peope can be traced back to their ancient father and divine Oduduwa who migrated from an ancient city now known as Mecca.
‘BENIN BRONZE HEADS’
The most widely known piece of Yoruba art are the ‘Benin Bronze Heads’ also known as the ‘Benin Bronzes’, but they should not be confused with the ‘Ife Head’ (or ‘Bronze Head from Ife’) which has a slightly diffrent history of dishonest appropriation.
The ‘Benin Bronzes’ are a group of thousands of objects that were taken from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria, in 1897. (Their exact number is unknown, though it is believed to exceed 3,000 and reach up to 5,000.) These objects—including figurines, tusks, sculptures of Benin’s rulers, and an ivory mask—were looted by British troops, and have since been dispersed around the world, with the bulk of the works now residing with state museums in Europe. Contrary to the name, not all of the works are made of bronze. Because they made their way beyond West Africa as a result of a colonial conquest, the Benin Bronzes have faced calls for their return, both within Nigeria and outside it. There are over 900 objects from the historic Kingdom of Benin in the British Museum’s collection, the most in any institution around the world.
Benin suffered a bloody and devastating occupation. No exact figure can be given for the number of Benin’s population who were killed in the conquest of the city. However, it is clear that there were many casualties during the sustained fighting. The occupation of Benin City saw widespread destruction, looting, and pillage by British forces. Along with other monuments and palaces, the Benin Royal Palace was burned and partly destroyed. Its shrines and associated compounds were looted by British forces, and thousands of objects of ceremonial and ritual value were stolen to the UK as official ‘spoils of war’ or distributed among members of the expedition according to their rank. This included objects removed from royal ancestral shrines, among which were ceremonial brass heads of former Obas and their associated ivory tusks. The looted objects also included more than 900 brass plaques, dating largely to the 16–17th century, found in a storage room within the palace. Having previously decorated the palace walls, these plaques were key historic records for the Benin Court and Kingdom, enabling illustration of historic practices and traditions. Following the occupation, the Oba was later captured and sent into exile, while a number of Benin chiefs were executed. Justified as legitimate military action against a ‘barbarous’ Kingdom, this brutal, violent colonial episode effectively marked the end of the independent Kingdom of Benin.
Nevertheless, the modern city of Benin (in Edo State) is the home of the current ruler of the Kingdom of Benin, His Royal Majesty Oba Ewuare II. Many of the rituals and ceremonies associated with the historic Kingdom of Benin continue to be performed today. Despite the brutal and imperialistic attack by British colonial forces the traditions and cultures they aimed to destroy and wipe out have prevailed through oral hisory.
‘Benin Bronzes’ were created from at least the 16th century onwards in the West African Kingdom of Benin, by specialist guilds working for the royal court of the Oba (king) in Benin City. The Kingdom also supported guilds working in other materials such as ivory, leather, coral and wood, and the term ‘Benin Bronzes’ is sometimes used to refer to historic objects produced using these other materials.
Many pieces were commissioned specifically for the ancestral altars of past Obas and Queen Mothers. They were also used in other rituals to honour the ancestors and to validate the accession of a new Oba. Among the most well-known of the ‘Benin Bronzes’ are the cast brass plaques which once decorated the Benin royal palace and which provide an important historical record of the Kingdom of Benin. This includes dynastic history, as well as social history, and insights into its relationships with neighbouring kingdoms, states, and societies.
In October 2021 the British Museum received a written request for the return of ‘Nigerian antiquities’ from the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, Nigeria. In addition, representatives of the Benin Royal Palace have made various public statements asking for the Benin collections to be returned, most recently at the Benin Dialogue Group meeting hosted by the Museum in October 2021. In spite of these recent requests and several other requests over the decades the only institution who has committed to repatriating a ‘Benin Bronze’ work is the the University of Aberdeen in Scotland who called its 1957 acquisition of a sculpture of the Oba at auction in London ‘extremely immoral’ and has vowed to send the work home.
As artist Victor Ehikhamenor, wrote in his New York Times op-ed on the subject in 2020 ‘[g]enerations of Africans have already lost incalculable history and cultural reference points because of the absence of some of the best artworks created on the continent. We shouldn’t have to ask, over and over, to get back what is ours.’
We join the many others who continue to call upon and demand that the British Museum and other institions located in the Global North return stolen artefacts to their rightful homes in Africa.
The Bronze Head from Ife, Wunmonije Heads, or Ife Head, is one of eighteen copper alloy sculptures that were unearthed in 1938 at Ife in Nigeria, the religious and former royal centre of the Yoruba people. It is believed to represent a king. It was probably made in the fourteenth-fifteenth century C.E. Like most West African ‘bronzes’ the Ife Head is actually made of copper alloyed with other metals, described as ‘heavily leaded zinc-brass’. Modern practice in museums and archaeology is increasingly to avoid terms such as bronze or brass for historical objects in favour of the all-embracing ‘copper alloy’. The Head is made using the lost wax technique and is approximately three-quarters life-size, measuring 35 cm high. The artist designed the head in a very naturalistic style. The face is covered with incised striations, but the lips are unmarked. The headdress suggests a crown of complex construction, composed of different layers of tube shaped beads and tassels. This decoration is typical of the bronze heads from Ife. The crown’s surface includes the remains of both red and black paint.
The Ife Head was found by accident in 1938 at the Wunmonije Compound, Ife, during house-building works amongst sixteen other brass and copper heads and the upper half of a brass figure. Most of the objects found in the Wunmonije Compound and neighbouring areas ended up in the National Museum of Ife, but a few pieces were taken from Nigeria and are now in the collections of major museums. This pictured Ife Head was taken from Nigeria by the editor of the Daily Times of Nigeria, H. Maclear Bate, who probably sold it to the National Art Collections Fund, which then passed it onto the British Museum in 1939.
The Ife Head is thought to be a portrait of a ruler known as an Ooni or Oni. It was probably made under the patronage of King Obalufon Alayemore whose famous naturalistic life-size face mask in copper shares stylistic features with this work. Today among the Yoruba, Obalufon is identified as the patron deity of brass casters. The period in which the work was made was an age of prosperity for the Yoruba civilisation, which was built on trade via the River Niger to the peoples of West Africa. Ife is regarded by the Yoruba people as the place where their deities created humans.
The excavation of the Ife Heads had a massive impact on art history which for years racistly argued that the Ife Heads were an anomaly and had been cast by a colony of ancient Greeks in thirteenth century BCE. This is now widely understood as stemming from colonial racism and the Ife Heads are not only representative of inigenous African traditions, they were likely created by a highly talented indiviual artist in a single workshop.
PRINCESS ELIZABETH OLOWU
Princess Elizabeth Olowu is a sculptor who is recognised as the first female bronze caster in Nigeria. Born in 1939 in the royal house of Benin to Oba Akenzua II, Olowu took interest in the objects in the royal court—Benin Bronzes—and started learning the skill of bronze sculpting alongside her mother.
Olowu’s focus and desire to learn the skill of bronze sculpting was encouraged by her father—at a time when women in Benin were not allowed to participate in the craft. She was educated at Holy Child College, Lagos and in 1966, she enrolled at the University of Nsukka to study Fine Arts. Her artistic abilities and academic performance earned her the top first-year student award in Fine Arts but her education at Nsukka was cut short because of the Biafran War.
In 1976, she enrolled at the newly established department of Creative Arts at the University of Benin, where she graduated as the department’s first sculpture major in 1979. In 1984, she became the first female recipient of a Master’s of Fine Arts from the University of Benin and was recognised as Nigeria’s first female bronze caster. She was awarded the Bendel State Award for Art and Culture in 1985.
Art has always held massive cultural importance and value in the Yoruba cultural tradition. It depicts history, social standing, remembers royalty, celebrates life and death, and is a part of our traditional attire. Everything from ancient bronze antiquities to the gele and adire we tie. Yoruba culture is infused with a rich artistic history. The lasting impact of Yoruba art and culture on global art history cannot be understated!