By William Dewey
Pennsylvania State University (formerly University of Iowa)

Nigeria; Yoruba (Ife) artist



H. 16 cm (6 1/4")

National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria, 79.R.6 (Ife 305)

Photo by Dirk Bakker


In 1910 the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius visited the Nigerian city of Ife and brought several ancient terracotta heads back to Germany.  He claimed a Greek colony in Africa produced the incredibly naturalistic sculpture he discovered (Willett 1967: 14). Through archaeological dating and other methods it has been proven conclusively that the culture and art of Ife is entirely African in origin and without foreign influence, yet such prejudices and misconceptions as Frobenius's have unfortunately continued. We know that an incredible body of artwork in stone, terracotta, copper, and brass (and probably other materials that have now disintegrated) were made in the Yoruba city of Ife from the latter part of the first millennium up to the 15th century (Drewal and Schildkrout 2009). After 1938 the Oni (King of Ife) started collecting ancient items that people discovered while digging foundations and roads, including this head, and took them to his place for safekeeping.