When the Olokun head was discovered in Nigeria exactly a century ago by the German archaeologist Leo Frobenius, it could have told us a great deal about a lost 14th-century African civilisation. But the artefact has ended up telling us rather more about the often unattractive attitudes of our own.
Frobenius, who dug up the object after bribing the overseer of the sacred site with a small sum of money and a bottle of whiskey, believed he had found evidence of a lost "white" African tribe. And other Western experts dismissed the copper sculpture as a forgery, arguing that a work of such sophisticated craftsmanship could not have been created by the hands of supposedly primitive Africans. And in 1948 the British Museum's experts didn't even believe it was authentic. The view was that the original must have been smuggled out of Nigeria. But now the British Museum has changed its view once again. It is now believed that the Olokun is authentic after all.
In the light of this fraught history, the public should probably go and see the British Museum's latest show, the Kingdom of Ife, and judge for themselves. And they would be well advised to leave their preconceptions at the door.Reuse content