Kingdom of Ife, British Museum, London

Sculpture compelling and masterly, but not Africa's answer to Donatello

To a varying degree, we see all art through the veils of time and culture. Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie is an entirely familiar image, but it was painted 70 years ago by a French-speaking Dutch Theosophist in exile from a world war in New York.

Which is to say that the work's context is specific: how do we, at home and now, approach it? And this question becomes more urgent when we look at the sculptures of Ife, on show at the British Museum.

The Kingdom of Ife, in what is now south-western Nigeria, flourished between the 9th and 12th centuries. After that time, its power was slowly lost to the neighbouring kingdom of Benin. Where most of us will at least have heard of the Benin bronzes, though, their Ife equivalents are far less known. This was not always so.

First excavated by a German archæologist, Leo Frobenius, in 1910, the bronze, copper and terracotta sculptures of Ife shook Western thinking about Africa to the core. This was not because they were, like the sculptures of Benin, so obviously different from European art – stylised, schematised, abstracted. Rather the opposite: what disturbed about the Ife works was that they were naturalistic, which is to say European-looking. This in turn suggested that Africans might themselves, like Europeans, be sophisticated and civilised people, a piece of sedition that raised inconvenient questions about the right of the West to treat Africa as a colonial grab-bag.

Frobenius himself was horrified by the implications of Ife. Looking at modern-day Nigerians, he confessed to being "moved to silent melancholy at the thought that this assembly of the degenerate and feeble-minded should be the rightful guardians of so much loveliness". The only rational answer, he said, packing his spoils for shipment to Berlin, was that the sculptures of Ife had not been made by Africans at all. In excavating the Yoruba kingdom, he had stumbled across the lost city of Atlantis.

Even when it became clear that works such as the 14th-century copper mask called Obalufon hadn't been made by Martians, European audiences were left wondering how to deal with them. Postcolonial theorists like to talk about "constructing The Other", a process of turning foreigners into exotics in order to exploit them.

Cheated of this easy comfort, Western critics had, by the mid-20th century, gone the other way. Eyeing the striated heads Frobenius and his successors had dug up, they decided to award them the ultimate accolade. The sculptures of Ife were so good that they could almost be European – and not just any European art, but the kind we have come to see as its acme, the work of the Italian Renaissance. "The Donatellos of Mediæval Africa!" screamed the Illustrated London News in 1948, a comparison still made by reviewers of this show 60-odd years later.

Well. Bar the happy coincidence of the heads from Ife's Wunmonije Compound and Donatello's David being made from copper alloys and within a century of each other, is the comparison between them useful? And the short answer is, no.

The French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, distinguished between savage artists (whom he called "handymen") and civilised ones, dubbed "engineers". Handymen work with what they have; engineers invent. Donatello is an engineer. David's unstable pose and slippery sexuality tell us that he is all about newness. Equally, the stasis of the Ife sculptures and their tendency to the exact suggest that they are there to reaffirm the old – old social orders, old beliefs. To come to their beauty through Donatello is to big them up artificially, and, in doing so, to belittle them.

So how are we to look at the art of the Kingdom of Ife? I'll admit that I have no idea. Critics from other papers have lavished unanimous praise on the figures in the British Museum's show – "unmissable", "extraordinary", "exceptional" – but, worryingly, I can't join in. While I find the Ife torso of a king interesting as an artefact and useful as information, I also find it uninventive and unmoving as an artwork. Had it had the wildness of the Ivoirien sculpture idolised by Picasso and Matisse, then maybe I'd have liked it; although, of course, I would simply have been seeing it through another pair of Eurocentric eyes. Clearly, this is one exhibition I'll have to keep going back to. See you there.

To 6 Jun (020-7323 8299)

Next week:

Charles Darwent goes to Pallant House in Chichester to see the paintings of John Tunnard – the missing link between British surrealism and abstraction

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness