Nigeria's ancient royal portraits challenged European biases toward African art

Nearly a thousand years ago, Ife artisans sculpted bronze and terra-cotta heads, whose realism and beauty would astound the first Europeans to see them in the 1900s.

Bronze Ooni Head, 12th-15th Century. National Museum of Ife, Nigeria
ANDREA JEMOLO/SCALA, FLORENCE

The Yoruba people of Nigeria believe Ife to be a sacred city founded by the gods and the birthplace of humanity. Lying 135 miles northeast of the Nigerian city Lagos, Ife was where archaeologists uncovered a series of sculptures that revealed a rich yet overlooked history of Yoruba culture to the world.

While some were made of metal and others of terra-cotta, the heads of Ife share a highly symmetrical style. Some faces are adorned with lines and designs, and elaborate hair styles top their heads. All convey a dignified and imposing majesty.

The importance of the human head in the Yoruba cosmology was unknown to the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, who first saw one of these artworks in 1910. Although his theories regarding the heads’ origins were underpinned by entrenched, racist ideas, his fascination for Yoruba artworks began a change in how the Western world regarded African cultures.

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