Ife

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

Nigeria; Yoruba (Ife) peoples

Obalufon mask

Copper

H. 29.5 cm (11 5/8")

National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria, 17

Photo by Dirk Bakker

 

This copper mask is also said to have always been kept in the king’s palace. According to tradition it represents the Oni Obalufon, who is credited with bringing metal casting skills to Ife. Unlike most heads that have been recovered from Ife, this example has slits cut under the eyes and is large enough to have been worn. We don’t know why it was made this way.  This example and several other heads were made entirely of copper. Copper is a very difficult metal to cast if it is not alloyed with tin and lead to make bronze (the material the Igbo Ukwu casters used), or zinc to make brass (used by Ife casters in other pieces). Molten copper does not flow smoothly and easily oxidizes, but the Ife casters were so skillful in devising techniques to overcome this that hardly a flaw can be detected.