Went to see a wonderful exhibition recently at the British Museum called Kingdom of Ife – Sculptures from West Africa. It was a collection of beautiful sculptures, mostly heads like the one pictured, done in bronze, copper and terracotta, and dating from as far back as the 12th century.
The exhibition made me realise how ignorant I am about African history. I’d never even heard of the Kingdom of Ife, which flourished in modern-day Nigeria from the 12th to the 15th centuries. I have a history degree from Oxford University, but never learned anything about African history beyond the 19th century colonial “Scramble for Africa”.
The regular African collection at the British Museum is also pretty unimpressive compared with this special exhibition. It’s housed in the basement (far away from the Egyptian collection, which is one of the museum’s highlights, but Egypt is apparently not in Africa for the British Museum’s purposes). As I can remember, it consists mostly of masks and wood carvings no more than a century or two old. There was nothing in there that really grabbed me in the way that these much earlier Ife sculptures did.
So I’d highly recommend going to see this exhibition – it’s on until 6 June 2010. As well as the sculptures themselves, there’s excellent information about the society and its beliefs, and about the process used to create the sculptures (the “lost wax” method of bronze casting). I can’t remember the exact details, but it was something like creating the sculpture in clay, then coating it in wax, then creating a mold, and heating it up to melt the wax and drain it away through little tubes, leaving space for the molten bronze to be poured in and form the shape of the mold. I’m not explaining it well, so you’ll have to go and see for yourself!