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Ife terracotta
and bronzes




Ife Head, terracotta Ife Head of an Oni, bronze
© National Commission for Museums and Monuments (Nigeria)
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Provenance I Charateristics I The urgency of the situation I Legislation I Sources



The regions of Ife and Owo, South-West Nigeria.



Ife, as capital and religious centre of South-West Nigeria, was one of the first cities to emerge at this latitude at the end of the first millennium AD. Substantial numbers of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic sculptures (elephants, rams, etc.) mainly in terracotta, but also in brass, were produced in the region between the 11th and the 15th centuries. Human and animal representations with the same characteristics were also added in high-relief on spherical pottery. All these items are known on the market as “Ife art”, although they may come from other cities such as Owo. These brass objects (commonly known as “bronze”) are strikingly realistic, although they are almost certainly idealised portraits of dead kings or Oni. In most cases, they are isolated life-sized heads, sometimes busts broken off, and exceptionally full length figurines around 50 cm high, crowned and wearing heavy necklaces. Some heads are circled with a diadem, whereas others exhibit perforations around the skull and on occasions on the neck, chin and around the mouth. The terracotta heads are far more numerous and varied. Their height ranges from 25 cm to close to life-size. Effigies of bodies, whole or fragmented, have also been found elsewhere. The heads from Owo generally carry headgear in the place of diadems, and many of them are gagged. Some of the faces, whether made of brass or terracotta, carry vertical parallel incisions. Alongside these naturalistic figures, some highly abstract human heads were produced. On a cone, a mouth has been gouged out, and eyes are represented in the form of round holes. A number of horn-like excrescences emerge from the top of the skull.


--The urgency of the situation  

The policy adopted by the Nigerian authorities from 1945 onwards, of keeping the local population informed, has led to the setting-up of public collections of Ife works found during excavations or given by the king or local inhabitants if the objects were discovered during construction work. But the scarcity value of items now available on the market, combined with rising demand over the last few years, has been an incentive to violence and robbery on a massive scale from Nigerian museums. Between April 1993 and November 1994, some forty items were stolen from the Ife museum. Between May 1993 and May 1997, security staff in the Owo museum were savagely attacked, one killed and others seriously wounded. In the last ten years, dozens of objects of this kind have appeared on the art market in Europe and North America. However, three terracotta heads stolen from the Ile-Ife National Museum were recovered in Paris, and restituted to Nigeria in 1996.


National and international legislation protecting these objects:

- Nigerian Prohibition Law on non-exportation of antiquities, Government decrees of 1974 and 1979 (National Commission for Museums and Monuments Decree N° 77, 1979).

- UNESCO Convention of 1970 on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, ratified by Nigeria on 24 January 1972, in force on 24 April 1972.



- Yaro T. Gella, 1997 : Director-General / Directeur général, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria : « Thefts in Museums : A Report on the Nigerian Situation 1993-1997 », Workshop on the Protection of the African Heritage / Atelier sur la protection du patrimoine culturel africain, Amsterdam, Working Documents, ICOM.
- Helen Kerri, Director / Directeur, Museums and Monuments, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.
- Catalogue de l'exposition / Exhibition catalogue, Vallées du Niger, Paris, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1993.

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January 2000