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Ife objects and collections in and out of Africa

coordinator: Dr. Musa Hambolu  (Director Research, Planning and Publication, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria)

co-coordinator: Dr. Editha Platte (Senior Researcher, Frobenius-Institut at the Goethe-University Frankfurt a. M.)

March 2007-2009

Ife objects and collections in and out of Africa. A project for making documents and information on Ife objects and collections available for research and education purposes.

A Pilot Project within the British Museum Project "Enhancing the Contemporary Use of African Artefacts" 


Ife art has been known to the world outside the ancient kingdom of Ife, Nigeria, since approximately 1910. In that year Leo Frobenius led an expedition to Nigeria, where he found the brass head of Olokun (the god of the ocean from the Yoruba pantheon), which was henceforth taken as a proof of the high standard of African art. As a result, both Western and Nigerian scholars developed a great interest in Ife brass, stone and terracotta objects. In 1938 a second excavation was carried out, during which eighteen brass objects were found. Some of these were taken to America, one found its way to the British Museum in London, and 25 ended up in Germany, but most of them stayed in Ife itself and were integrated into the newly established Ife Museum. From 1941 onwards a number of scientific excavations were organised (1953: Bernhard Fagg, William Fagg and John Goodwin; 1957/62,63: Frank Willett; Oliver Meyers; 1969: Ekpo Eyo; 1971-72: Peter Garlake; Omotosho Eluyemi: undocumented materials; Fr. W. Welt; from 2000 onwards: Suzanne Preston Blier; etc.) and objects were scattered all over the world.

However, it was not only the famous brass and terracotta objects themselves which toured in and out of Africa, but also drawings and photographs of these objects, which were produced as descriptive material and which in some cases are the only materials now available (e.g. the brass head that Frobenius dug out in 1910 is only known today through a drawing and photographs).

Besides this primary material, the secondary use of these famous objects is, likewise, of great importance. In Europe, they were integrated into the discourse of the developing art world of European Modernism during the first half of the twentieth century, while in Nigeria too they became of great importance within the modern academic art history. Within this context of their different uses, the recent meaning of these objects for the people of Ife themselves and for Nigeria as a whole is of interest. Their integration into local political discourses and their adoption as national emblems will be an important additional path to understanding African objects in a contemporary context. Furthermore, we must also remember that these objects are not only used officially but also integrated into the African and European art market, where they tour as fakes and imitations or airport art.

Whereas the material aspects of Ife objects are of great importance, the non-material features - the intangible dimensions - must also be considered. As such, oral traditions of origin, usage and meaning, spiritual connections, etc. will be integrated as documentation categories and will play a central role in the study.