Brass head of a ruler
Wunmonije Compound, Ife, Nigeria, probably 1300s – early 1400s
This head is one of the most famous objects in the British Museum's ethnographic collections.
In January 1938 workmen were digging foundations for a new house in Wunmonije Compound in the city of Ife, in what is now south-western Nigeria. While clearing away the topsoil they struck metal and further digging revealed a group of cast heads.
This accidental find led to the eventual discovery of 17 heads in brass and copper and the broken top half of a king figure.
This magnificent head was one of those discovered in Wunmonije Compound. It was purchased in Ife by Mr Bates, then editor of the Nigerian Daily Times and was subsequently acquired by Sir (later Lord) Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, acting on behalf of the National Art Collections Fund for the British Museum.
This head clearly portrays a person of status and authority. The elaborate headdress probably represents a crown. It has a central band which appears to include numerous glass or stone beads of different shapes and sizes. A fringe of feathers is indicated along the crown’s peaked front. The back of the neck is hidden by a beaded and plaited cover.
Most striking perhaps is the plaited crest rising from the front of the crown with a beaded conical boss at its base. Traces of red and black paint are evident throughout.
The finds from Wunmonije Compound were published in 1938-9 and created a sensation in the western world. It was initially assumed that these beautiful sculptures could not have been made in Africa by African artists. The naturalism of the works gave them a portrait-like appearance and comparisons were immediately made with masterpieces from European traditions.
The sculptures from Ife are now rightly seen as one of the highest achievements of African art and culture.