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Nigerian Ife Art on Display in Houston

A sculpture from the exhibit "Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria", on display in Houston, Texas
A sculpture from the exhibit "Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria", on display in Houston, Texas

Multimedia

Greg Flakus

A collection of more than 100 items of African art is now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the first stop in a U.S. tour of rare art works from Nigeria's Ife region.

The exhibition is called Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria and features many objects that  museum visitors may find surprising.  Curator Frances Marzio said, "Ife early on protected its patrimony and these objects have, for the most part, never even been outside of Nigeria."

One of the biggest surprises, Marzio says, is the realistic portrayals of royalty and other subjects in terra cotta, stone and metal. "Most of what we think of as African art today are the types of abstract art and wooden art that really influenced 20th century artists like Picasso. So, to see these objects that are made in a very classical way, more like Greece and Rome, I think is a revelation and I think it changes your idea of what African art was," said Marzio.

One example is this statue of a beaded woman called Idena. "This stone sculpture dates from the ninth century and it represents Idena, the gatekeeper, who presided over and protected the sacred grove at Ore. "The Idena statue is seen in a gatekeeper position and wearing a large beaded necklace and beaded bracelets. The wealth of Ife was due to a bead making tradition. They exported their glass beads to the north of Africa and made this area very prosperous," she said.

Marzio says her favorite works in the exhibition are the metal sculptures of human heads. "From the ninth to the 14th century, this area created a number of copper-alloy heads that are unlike anything else we have seen in African art. They have wonderful naturalism. They look as if they could speak or communicate  with you. Yet they have the realism of Roman portraits," she said.

Most of these works date from a period a century before the art of metal sculpture returned to Europe during the Renaissance. Marzio says they show a level of skill similar to that attained by the ancient Greeks and Romans. "We know that there was a long metal-working tradition in Africa from very ancient times, but it is unknown what the origin of these particular heads was," she said.

The exhibit of art from Ife will remain here in Houston through January 9 of next year.

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