The faces seem either about to speak, or having just finished a statement. The kings and queens venerated by the art wear the expressions of ones who are accustomed to being obeyed.These are heads made of copper alloy fashioned 600 years ago in the city-state of Ife (EE-fay) by the Yoruba people of West Africa in today’s southwestern Nigeria. "Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art In Ancient Nigeria," a landmark exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts that is timed to the opening of the VMFA’s African Art Gallery, is a splendid exhibition of an art and people about whom we need to know more. Richmond is fortunate to have attained a slot in the six-city tour of the show and is the only place other than New York City where it will be seen on the East Coast.
It’s something of a capstone, also, for Richard Woodward, the VMFA’s curator of African art. When he arrived at the museum 36 years ago, the institution owned no African pieces. Now it possesses one of the best collections in the country.
A couple of years ago, Woodward’s phone rang with a query from Enid Schildkrout. She is curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History and adjunct professor at Columbia University and at the City University of New York. She wanted to know if the VMFA would have an interest in showing these works.
“I jumped right up from my desk and ran over to the administration offices and said, we have to do this,” Woodward said yesterday at a preview for journalists. He added that there was something in the air about the Yoruba work: The first pieces acquired by the museum were textiles and glass bead work. Today, a visitor is met by a figure of an Ife king, and if you stand at the entrance of the African Gallery, across the atrium, you see a Yoruba king’s rainment.
The work is compelling enough but the stories behind it are fascinating. For more than the past half-century, the earth of Nigeria has been returning these works to the surface. Modern-day construction of office buildings and houses have revealed them. They stare at us from across the centuries, still, and formal, but not as arrogant as some of the Egyptian pharaohs, or as distant and removed as the Greek gods and Roman emperors.
Henry John Drewal, who co-authored with Schildkrout the “Dynasty and Divinity” catalogue, explains that with the political elbowing of city-states — such as happened in Ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy — Ife eventually lost its prominence in a succession of wars. The cultural inheritance of art and artifaces were buried for safekeeping under the palace or in sacred places. “There was a skip in the generations, and eventually, the art was not retrieved,” Drewal says. That is, until colonialists dug it up and made off with portions of it. Some of them couldn't comprehend it — as was the case with German archaeologist Leo Frobenius, who assigned the art to a lost tribe from Atlantis. “For Westerners, Africa became the continent of enslavement, impoverishment and primitivism,” Drewal says.
London Sunday Times critic Waldemar Januszczak wrote of the exhibition when it was at the British Museum last summer that everybody should see it. “Because it changes our understanding of civilisation. Because it rewrites the story of art. Because it is a once-in-a-lifetime revolutionary event. If none of those is a big enough reason for you, then go along merely to enjoy some of the most graceful and lovely sculpture ever made. Trust me. You need to see this one.”
On Saturday, Feb. 12, from noon to 4 p.m., the official opening day for "Dynasty and Divinity," there is a slate of activities for the family.
This includes hands-on art-making in the art education center, guided tours of the African Art galleries, storytelling of Naana Kyereboah and Virginian Delano Douglas the film Motherland, a 124-minute documentary on Africa’s past and present, and performances by Adebisi Adeleke, a fourth-generation master of the talking drum, and Richmond’s own Ezibu Muntu African Dance Company.
School groups can see the show for free. Otherwise, it’s $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, students, and youth ages 7-17.