So many of our questions about a history of Yoruba art, society, and culture revolve around the mythic status of Ife1 as the source, the cradle (Akinjogbin 1992), the very genesis (Fabunmi 1985) of Yoruba, with the mythic descent of the gods from the sky at the beginning of time. This is a popular view. On the other hand, there is the more mundane recognition that “Yoruba” is a modern ethnicity emerging, more or less, in the period 1850–1950 (Peel 2000). In this reading, “Yoruba” is a coming together of several centers, each with its specificity; Ife is but one—mightily important of course, but still only one—among a series of overlapping centers and peripheries, each with its own name and identity, that comprise the “more-or-less” region that today we have learned to call “Yoruba,” or “the Yoruba,” or “Yoruba-land,” or “the Yoruba-speaking peoples.” This is most obviously seen in the cults of deities and in the mythology of kingship, but it is also evident via trade and craft centers, an evolving ethnicity in which “Yoruba” is a retrospective judgment that identifies a specific, interrelated set of histories.2
Ife must indeed have been a significant center of trade, ritual, political energy, and visual culture at a time prior to the foundation of the Oyo and Benin City empires to its northwest and southeast. Were there other centers contemporary with Ife? The works of art known as the Lower Niger Bronze Industry (Peek and Picton 2016) suggest that there were, sharing forms and ideas amongst the peoples of the lower Niger region for a very long time; and the very wealth of Ife, presumably generated by its control over access to forest products in the long-distance trade networks across West Africa and the Sahara, is evidence enough for the expectation of rival cities and centers—but we have yet to know them archaeologically. Nevertheless, Suzanne Blier's Art and Risk is by far the most thorough and intellectually coherent publication on the art and antiquities of Ife yet to appear in print. And Blier also has the unusual grace of acknowledging that her book is the not the definitive account: There is still more to be done; I shall offer a few suggestions in due course.
We had been led to imagine that the art of Ife was the work of two or perhaps three separate populations: some, but certainly not all, of the stone monuments perhaps the work of a long-forgotten hunter-gatherer people who first trod the forests3 and whose artifacts were incorporated into later cult contexts; in due course, a settled population of farmers developed a sculptural, figurative, naturalistic art using the clay also used for making domestic pottery4; and finally, a gang of newcomers established a brass- and copper-casting industry, transforming the existing forms of art, while also establishing the mythic progenitor from whom almost all Yoruba kings claim descent. Yet as Blier makes clear, there is something of the caricature in this account, an over-simplification of course, not least because the art of Ife is not just stone (whether granite, quartz, or schist—and the differences have cult and art-historical implications), ceramic, and copper alloy: There is wrought iron, glass-making, featherwork, dress, textiles, basketry, and the arts of the human body. And Blier considers everything within the full range of contexts available to us—archaeological and ethnographic, mythic and real-time historical, formal and aesthetic (what was the context in which this material was seen?), visual and poetic, current and contemporary. The works of art themselves are part of the data available to us, as much as the present-day ritual context, which Blier takes at face value as a source of information that brings together past and present. She looks at everything and takes full account of all the available information, including the links between the lineage and title structure of Ife and its sites, shrines and temples, and their relationship to differing peoples claiming descent that is either autochthonous yet multiethnic or newcomer. She writes:
It is difficult to write a “short” history of this remarkable city, not because we have little information, but rather because data from the various sources are so rich (p. 36).
Ife was abandoned twice in the course of the late nineteenth century, from about 1850 to 1854 and again from about 1878 to 1894, due to the disruptions and populations pressures following upon the Fulani-led conquest of the Oyo empire. When people returned to the city, its sacred groves, shrines, and temples were overgrown with vegetation and in a condition of decay. “Western” scholarship assumed that much of what the ritual environment was all about was forgotten, just a smattering of half-remembered myths of little use in the twentieth-century context of an archaeology trying to make sense of a remarkable series of accidental discoveries. Fagg and Willett (1960: 24) took the view that
[T]here has unquestionably been considerable degeneration of both the traditions and the practices. … The prolonged evacuation of Ife during the nineteenth century no doubt contributed to the confusion.
Yet in my experience in Nigeria, in the absence of writing, memories persist far more strongly than the inhabitants of literate cultures expect, and we cannot assume that a local memory is without a measure of real-time historical veracity. Ife was abandoned for four years and then another sixteen; in the minds of priests and elders, memories of lineage ancestries and ritual procedures do not habitually decay that quickly. Maybe there is a confusion between real-time events and mythic accounts of gods and heroes, and we can be reasonably certain that many works of art in Ife are no longer in the places for which they were originally made; yet something of the history of Ife was always known to be embodied in a lineage structure that distinguished between peoples claiming autochthonous versus newcomer descent. The art-historical implications of this were noted by Frank Willett (see 1967: 123): That the head of the family who represents the Igbo [of whom more later!] was responsible for two sacred groves that contained so large a proportion of the Ife ceramic sculpture is striking might suggest that this was the art of an original indigenous population who were then put to work in the service of a new ruling class. Blier asks:
Can we simply assume that when one encounters possible references to the Yagba, Edo, Igbo, or other groups in early art, facial markings, and ongoing ritual that what we are talking about had similar meanings in earlier eras? … What is significant for Ife is both how vital idioms of autochthony continue to exist through time and how these ideas sometimes have occupational links … Like the small sacred groves scattered across the landscape of the city, sites that serve as ritually charged remnants of the deep forests of the past, these once labor-linked cultural groupings are remnants of the longer history of cross-cultural engagement that came to define this urban center and others in Africa (pp. 41–42).
Blier draws upon evidence in Ife, not hitherto given the significance it deserves, for a considerable measure of continuity between antiquity and its contemporary context such that our understanding is enhanced by her gathering together all the available data: archaeological, ethnographic, and so on. It is also worth noting that Blier makes full and appropriate use of Yoruba scholarship. Moreover, everything is illustrated to provide the most extensive compendium of the art of Ife yet to appear in book form.5 Admittedly, much of the illustration is in the form of Blier's drawings, so that for the full effect, as it were, one still needs Willett's CD-ROM (2004).
There was indeed a clash of rival populations, the one autochthonous and probably multiethnic, the other pushing in from elsewhere, each still represented in the lineage structure of the city. The entire corpus of art was part of a flourishing city in which a crisis wrought by a conquering elite was resolved; the art was part of the process by which rival lineages and personalities achieved and documented this resolution—herein lies the risk of Art and Risk. And once Blier brings in the institutionalized memories manifested in current and contemporary lineage and cult affiliations, it becomes an account that is centered on the proposition that it is all an art of more or less the same period, around ad 1300, a period in which Ife flourished, and in which there is both conflict and its resolution. In regard to this date, Blier follows Peter Garlake, whose excavations are the most fully published, and thereby provide a context for the interpretation of the earlier work of Frank Willett et al. Garlake writes:
At present we have insufficient evidence to construct a sequence of sites or objects. It is unsafe to assert that all the art from Ife was not nearly contemporaneous: it could all have been produced in the fourteenth century. If we seek to place extreme outer limits on the art these would fall between the tenth and fifteenth or sixteenth centuries (2002: 135).
The question of dating thus remains open, but for Blier, the century centered around 1300 is as good a guide to the possibilities of interpretation as we can expect in the current state of archaeological research, and it enables Blier to present a more coherent account of the art history of Ife than anyone else has done so far. She has taken a chance and it has worked: As I read through Art and Risk, the force of her argument became increasingly convincing.
The period in which the visual arts that characterize Ife flourished was a period before, during, and after a civil war, which was represented in myth as a battle between two groups of gods, those led by Orishanla (a.k.a. Obatala: see below) standing for the autochthonous inhabitants, and those led by Oduduwa standing for conquering newcomers perhaps invited into Ife by a dissident faction within that autochthonous population.6 And, as already noted, lineages of autochthonous status still flourish in Ife, with their temples and shrines and their concomitant association with particular groups of antiquities. It is also possible that the autochthonous population was multiethnic—some of the facial marks on the ceramic sculpture suggest this—and some of these autochthonous peoples were known as Igbo, the mythic inhabitants of the forest whom the conquering elite of Ife are enabled to defeat only via the intervention of the beautiful Moremi. She is married to the conquering leader, Oranmiyan, but allows herself to be captured by the forest people who were waging war on Ife. She marries their king and discovers their secret: terrifying monsters that were no more than masked figures clothed in vegetable-fiber costumes, who could easily be dealt with by means of flaming brands. She returns to Ife with this information, enabling Ife to defeat the forest people, and she remarries Oranmiyan. However, there is a rival myth that Blier chooses to make use of in her interpretation of the art: Oranmiyan forces the last of the first-dynasty kings of Ife into exile. This is Obalufon II, the great heroic figure of Blier's account, who in due course returns to defeat Oranmiyan and ushers in a period of reconciliation that entails developments in the visual arts. And the beautiful Moremi is married to both of them. It is in this context that Blier, following up an insight derived from the late Cornelius Adepegba, solves the problem of why some of the cast heads are striated and some are not.
I now want to make a few suggestions for the continuing discussion. When living in Ife in 1964–65 looking after the museum, I called to see the Ooni, Adesoji Aderemi, a number of times. On one of these visits, and following from my Ekiti visits, I asked him what was the generic term in Ife for the gods. He replied: “ėbora.” I already knew this word, of course, from the Yoruba northeast, where it referred to powers without “embodiment” in an artifact. Powers manifested in the things made by artists were referred to with the Ekiti term im⊙nl.7 But if ėbora was the generic term, what about òrì⋅à? In Ife in the 1960s that word was used exclusively of òrì⋅àńlá, “the great Orisha,” a deity known in the Oyo empire as ⊙bàtálá, which is the word Blier uses here. Since the 1960s there has been a shift in the language used of the gods in Ife, and I accept that Blier has cast her account in Ife as it is. Nevertheless, it seems to me an Oyo-derived terminology, and part of the history of both Yoruba and Ife resides in the histories of the words and their distribution and significance.
Secondly, the survival of the divide between autochthonous and newcomer populations still configured within Ife society is essential for the understanding of the art. Much of this data is here in Art and Risk, not least because Blier gives us a great many reminders of the principles at work. But the principles are complex, and Blier is forced into repeating herself as she reminds us of where we are at; we really do need a paper that gives us a succinct guide to the lineages and their titles, as well as their relationship to priestly titles, the festival cycle, temples, artisan groups, and ward structure, showing how the interrelated configuration works.
This brings me to the Igbo, as configured in myth and in the contemporary lineage and cult organization of Ife. Both Willett and Blier assume that “Igbo” here means (the ancestors of) the population now known by that word. But the Igbo of Ife myth were the people of the forest, and “forest” in modern Yoruba is igbó, whereas the people now distributed around the lower Niger region are igbò. Because of the difference of tone on the final syllable [high = forest; low = the people] these are simply two different words.8 If the mythic people of the forest are identified as igbó, they cannot be the ancestors of the modern Igbò. This is not to deny continuities of social, aesthetic, and ritual practice across space and time in the lower Niger region (see Picton 1991, Peek and Picton 2016), including the valid and intriguing parallels with the antiquities of Igbo-Ukwu, but present-day ethnicities are not a sure guide to past identities, even though in her discussion of facial markings Blier demonstrates the multiethnic nature of the autochthonous population.
Then there is the term “copper alloy”; it is, of course, the accurate generic term (in contrast to Fagg's and Willett's use of “bronze”—which no Ife casting is), but, as has been suggested over the past thirty years (Craddock and Picton 1986, Picton 1995, Peek and Picton 2106), there could be temporal implications in the different alloys used across the lower Niger region. On page 282 Blier refers to the possibility of a local source for the zinc needed for the alloying of brass. Yet while zinc ores are plentiful across the sub-Saharan region, there is no evidence either that zinc was extracted in a preindustrial context or even that the necessary technology existed, and the report on which she depends here has confused zinc with tin. Moreover, given the very low melting point of metallic zinc, the processes of alloying with copper are also complex beyond the technologies available in sub-Saharan Africa prior to the twentieth century. Tin is very different, as its smelting and alloying were easily possible within the local preindustrial technology, and the necessary deposits were close at hand, together with copper and lead deposits not so far away. While the tin-bronze used in Igbo-Ukwu and other Lower Niger castings could have been manufactured in the lower Niger region, the zinc-brass of Ife could not. Brass had to be imported ready made, and there are only two possible sources—either trans-Saharan or coastal trade—and a trans-Saharan source for the brass used in Ife castings has to be the explanation for its presence in an art dated to circa 1300. In that case, we need to explain why Ife is different from all the surrounding copper-alloy-casting cultures prior to access to coastal trade; with the proven existence of a local tin-bronze casting industry, why is there no evidence of it in Ife? On the other hand, if for some as yet unknown reason coastal trade was the proven source of Ife zinc-brass, we would have to date those works to circa 1500, around the time of the opening up of coastal trade by the Portuguese!
Finally, one would like to know much more about the textual material quoted in Art and Risk, in particular the ìkédù, the ancient text in the care of the eminent Professor Akinjogbin which is so fundamental to Blier's interpretation. This text clearly has something of the qualities of an archaeological discovery and it would be good to know more about its “excavation” and conservation: How was this text discovered, in what form does it exist, etc., etc.? One's appetite is merely whetted by Blier's very full note on pages 473–74.
In conclusion, in Art and Risk Suzanne Blier has given us a book that will provide substance to a great many discussions, seminars, and lectures for several years to come. By the time this review is published (for which late date I present my apologies), it will already have proved its worth as an essential element in the dialogical process—necessarily situated within a continuing archaeological context, supported by a proper attention to art-historical, current, and ethnographic data—that constitutes progress towards the truth of one of the great civilizations in world history and antiquity.
I leave the last word to Suzanne Blier:
That Ife residents still today speak passionately about events in the era circa 1300 when the great Ife heroes—Obalufon II (Obalufon Alaiyemore), Oranmiyan, Moremi, Obameri, Obawinrin, Lajua, and Osangangan Obamakin (Obalufon I)—were alive, highlights the reality that despite long centuries and change, the past is still very much in play (p. 464).
I lived in Ife for about fifteen months in 1964–65, dividing each week between overseeing the administration of Ife Museum and traveling through eastern and northeastern Yoruba surveying extant works of art for the archives founded by K.C. Murray in the Lagos Museum, and when possible collecting such material for the Lagos collections (e.g., Picton 1994a, b). Moreover, when traveling through Ekiti and Opin it was obvious that dialects, terminologies, cults, and the forms of art changed, sometimes so radically that mutual incomprehension would result unless both parties to a conversation were equally fluent in the Modern Standard Yoruba taught in local schools. I was also informed by the District Officers’ reports for the 1920s and ‘30s that Murray had begun to acquire for the museum for precisely the purpose to which I put them; and as I read them I was struck by the fact that when the DO in an Ekiti district referred to “the Yoruba” he was not referring to the people of that district but to the citizens of the empire of Oyo.
So, when was Yoruba art? Should we consider as “Yoruba” only those forms that develop within and as a response to the emergence of that modern ethnicity? This would be regarded as, at best, tendentious; this is not an argument about words.
Willett (1967: 123) noted how one of the sacred groves around Ife, a repository of stone sculpture, commemorates a hunter who was living in the world before the advent of that new ruling class. He suggests that some aspects of Ife art might refer back to a pre-agricultural foraging people.
I do wish we could stop using the term “terracotta,” which is the fine clay used by European artists; it is a highly specialist material quite unlike the coarse clay typical of an African preindustrial environment, and which, in Ife, is used for domestic pottery and sculpture.
I note one misidentification, admittedly of minor importance: the Archbishop of Canterbury in conversation with the Ooni of Ife in color plate 8 (p. 60) is not Rowan Williams, but his predecessor, George Carey.
This is a familiar trope in Yoruba history, as seen in the fall of Old Oyo.
In Ife, Blier tells us, the word im⊙nl has associations with the powers of the earth, and Abraham (1958: 307) makes the same point.
Speech-tone patterns do change in particular grammatical contexts but that does not apply here.