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

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