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Ife and Benin



Magnificent terracotta objects have been found in Nok, in Nigeria, dating back to a period some time between 500 BC and 500 AD. These are the earliest known sculptures on the continent, next to those of Ancient Egypt.

Later around 900 AD, the Igbo-Ukwo was making finely and intricately worked, bronze ceremonial objects. Against this background of creativity and craftsmanship, the Yoruba kingdoms of Benin and Ife sprang up between the 11th and 12th centuries.

ORIGINS
In Yoruba mythology, Ife was founded by a senior deity Oduduwa, acting on the order of the supreme deity Olorun (also known as Oludmare). Oduduwa became the first ruler, or Ooni, of Ife.

We know little of how these early Ooni exercised power or how their territory was administered, or precisely when the kingship started. We know that the landscape out of which Ife (and Benin) emerged consisted of a mixture of tropical forests and savannah land, affording very fertile soil and a high rainfall.

FOOD & ART
One of the keys to understanding the success and wealth of these kingdoms was the ability to provide a significant food surplus. This released labour, which could then be channelled into creating great works of art centred largely on celebrating kingship.

We can still see today an astounding range of objects made of bronze, brass, copper, wood, ceramic and ivory. The superb level of Ife craftsmanship expressed, using the "lost wax" method, is comparable with the finest examples of metal-work in Europe from Classical and Renaissance times.

VIEWS OF TWO HISTORIANS
"The art was largely motivated by the culture, the cultural practices of the people. They had to produce certain objects, which they used for certain ritual purposes."
Dr. Ohioma Pogoson, historian and lecturer at University of Ibadan, The African Institute, Nigeria.

Listen hereClick here to listen to Dr. Pogoson on the political context of art

"The art of Ife and Benin is so important because one gives birth to the other. The Ife art was the most ancient in the forest region of Nigeria, simply because the Ife civilisation goes as far back as 300 - 500 BC. Therefore, it had developed a lot of artefacts, which marks the history of Ife.

Ife later gave birth not only to Benin, but also to the art of Igbo, the Onitsha art, even going as far as to the hinterland of the Igbo, Igbo Ukwu."
Dr. Omotoso Eluyemi, director of National Museums and Monuments.

Listen hereClick here to listen to Dr. Eluyemi explaining the relationship between Ife and Benin

OYO
Ife was at one time considered the most senior Yuruba state. But by the 17th century it was eclipsed by Oyo. Lying further north, Oyo had the military advantage of a cavalry, and the right agricultural conditions to grow cereal. In the 18th century Oyo reached its peak, largely by profits of the slave trade. With the abolition of slavery its power waned. Today Ife continues to be regarded as the spiritual centre for all Yoruba, and the Ooni of Ife has considerable influence in the country.

BENIN
The kingship of Benin is closely related to Ife. The first king, or Oba, of Benin is traditionally supposed to be a descendant of Oduduwa, the founder of Ife. The most distinctive examples of Benin craftsmanship are the bronze plaques, which adorned the palace walls. As in the artwork of Ife, the craftsmen of Benin produced bronze and copper heads celebrating the power of the Oba.

The capital of Benin (not to be confused with the modern state of Benin, formerly Dahomey) was south west of Ife. One of the few early written accounts of this centre of power and trade is given by a Portuguese slave trader Joao Afonso Aveiro, who was astounded by what he described as the 'great city of Benin'. Over a hundred years later, a Dutch visitor compared it favourably with Amsterdam. Most of the art was looted by the British in 1897.

LOST WAX METHOD
"A precise model of the object to be made is constructed out of wax. A mould - usually made out of clay - is then formed round the wax model. This is left to harden. The whole thing is then heated. The wax melts away, hence the expression "lost wax."

This leaves a hollow space in the shape of the model. Molten metal is then poured into this space, filling it completely. When the metal has cooled down and hardened, the mould is broken, leaving the object in its metal form."