Kingdom of Ife: sculptures from West Africa

Sponsored by Santander
Additional support provided by The A.G.Leventis Foundation

4 March – 6 June 2010
Room 35
Admission charge

Kingdom of Ife: sculptures from West Africa will tell the story of the legendary city of Ife (pronounced ee-feh) through some of the most refined and beautiful sculptures ever to be found in Africa.

Ife is today regarded as the spiritual heartland of the Yoruba people living in Nigeria, the Republic of Benin and their many descendants around the world. The exhibition will feature nearly 100 superb pieces of Ife sculpture, most of which have never been seen in the UK before, and have been drawn almost entirely from the magnificent collections of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria. The British Museum is planning a series of Africa-related events, activities and displays to coincide with the 50th anniversary of African Independence celebrations in 2010.

Ife is rightly regarded as the birthplace of some of the highest achievements of African art and culture, combining technical accomplishment with strong aesthetic appeal. From the 12th to the 15th centuries, Ife flourished as a powerful, cosmopolitan and wealthy city-state in West Africa, in what is now modern Nigeria. It was an influential centre of trade connected to extensive local and long-distance trade networks which enabled the region to prosper. Ife developed a refined and highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in stone, terracotta, brass and copper-alloy to create a style unlike any in Africa at the time. The human figures portray a wide cross-section of Ife society and include depictions of youth and old age, health and disease, suffering and serenity. The almost pure copper mask of Obalufon II, an early Ooni (king) of Ife is one of the finest images of royal power from Ife.

According to Yoruba myth, Ife was the centre of the creation of the world and all mankind. Ife was home to many sacred groves located in the city’s forests. Two groves in particular have revealed numerous sculptures: the Ore Grove with its stone monoliths, human and animal figures and the Iwinrin Grove which is associated with terracotta heads and fragments from life-size figures.

Other sites have revealed spectacular pieces with royal associations including the only known complete king figure and an exquisite terracotta head, possibly portraying a queen both from Ita Yemoo. A terracotta elephant and a hippopotamus head lavishly adorned with beaded regalia come from the royal burial site of Lafogido.

The figurative terracotta sculptures, which represent the largest group of works, capture the diverse nature of Ife society at the time. Several terracotta heads bear facial striations suggesting cultural markings, some possibly from groups outside Ife. Some heads appear to depict women wearing regalia or jewellery indicating their high status. Also on display are almost life-size copper alloy heads which reveal an idealized, naturalistic uniformity although each head has notable individual characteristics. It is suggested that they were produced over a relatively short period of time, maybe in a single workshop. These heads are believed to be associated with the coronation or the accession rituals of new rulers of Yoruba city-states which owed allegiance to Ife.

Today Ife remains a major spiritual and religious centre for the Yoruba people. Some of its shrines and groves are still in use and rituals to key gods are performed regularly. Works of art from Ife have become iconic symbols of regional and national unity, and of pan-African identity. Since Independence in 1960 enthusiasm for copies or reproductions of heritage items with nostalgic associations has increased.  The ‘Ori Olokun’ head was chosen as the logo for the All-Africa Games held in Lagos in 1973 and has been adopted as the logo of numerous commercial, educational and financial institutions. Such images have become universal symbols of African heritage.

The exhibition has been developed in partnership with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria; the Fundación Marcelino Botín, Santander and the Museum for African Art, New York. Guest curator is Enid Schildkrout, Museum of African Art, New York. Co-curated at the British Museum by Claude Ardouin and Julie Hudson.

Sponsored by Santander.
Additional support provided by The A.G. Leventis Foundation

Copper head

Copper head. Found at Wunmonije Compound, Ife, Nigeria.
Late 14th-early 16th century. © Karin L. Wills/Museum for African
Art/National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria

Notes to Editors:

  • Admission charge £8 plus a range of concessions.Opening hours 10.00–17.30 Sunday to Wednesday, 10.00–20.30 Thursdays and Fridays

  • A full public programme will accompany the exhibition. More information is available from the press office.

  • An accompanying catalogue will be published by British Museum Press: Kingdom of Ife: sculptures from West Africa, by Enid Schildkrout, 2009, paperback £25

  • A related new publication is Object in Focus: Bronze Head from Ife, by Editha Platte, British Museum Press, 2009, paperback £5.

Banco Santander (SAN.MC, STD.N, BNC.LN) is a retail and commercial bank, based in Spain, with presence in 10 main markets. At the end of 2008, Santander was the largest bank in the euro zone by market capitalization and third in the world by profit. Founded in 1857, Santander had EUR 1,271 billion in managed funds at the end of 2008. Following the acquisition of Sovereign Bancorp. of the U.S. in January 2009, Santander has 90 million customers, around 14,000 branches – more than any other international bank – and over 170,000 employees. It is the largest financial group in Spain and Latin America, with leading positions in the United Kingdom and Portugal and a broad presence in Europe through its Santander Consumer Finance arm. In the first half of 2009, Santander registered €4,519 million in net attributable profit. In the UK, Santander operates two retail businesses – Santander, which was formed out of the Abbey and Bradford & Bingley retail network, and Alliance & Leicester. Together they have over 1300 branches, around 4,500 cash machines and they provide a full range of retail and corporate banking services to 25 million customers. Alliance & Leicester will become known as Santander by the end of 2010. 

The A.G. Leventis Foundation was established in 1979, to fulfil the wishes of the late Anastasios Leventis. Following his directions, the Foundation’s activities were based on three principles: culture, education, philanthropy; a fourth was later added to these, the environment. The Foundation is active throughout Europe and North America with a focus on projects related to Cyprus and Greece. The Foundation always had a special relationship with West Africa, particularly Nigeria, where Anastasios Leventis had spent his early and middle working years. In Nigeria the main activity has been the establishment and operation of agricultural schools specialising in training small farmers; the Foundation’s contribution in the area has also been extended to the support of cultural activities, universities and environmental projects.

Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings supported by BP, will be on display at the British Museum from 22 April – 25 July 2010. This exhibition will shed light on the absolute comparable quality of the Renaissance drawings and African sculptures. The exhibitions will offer visitors the chance to gain great insight into two cultures’ world view and artistic tradition which both existed in the 15th century.

Throughout 2010 the BM will stage a series of Africa-related events, activities and displays to celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence of not only Nigeria (1 October 2010) but of 16 other Africa countries. They include:

  • South Africa Landscape: Kew at the British Museum on the forecourt from 29 April to 8 October 2010.

  • Impressions of Africa in Room 69a, May – November 2010.

  • The British Museum’s Ife head will be on display at the Manchester Museum December 2009 – February 2010

The Museum’s Africa Programme has an active partnership with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria (NCMM). This Programme will provide a series of structured work placements and staff exchanges during 2009-2010 to build capacity within both Lagos and Ife museums (the main lenders to this exhibition) as well as other Nigerian museums in loans management, exhibition installation, conservation and education. This work is generously supported by the Ford Foundation.


For further information or images please contact
Esme Wilson on 020 7323 8394 /

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