The art of Ife, which flourished from the twelfth to the fifteenth century in southwestern Nigeria, in the area occupied by the Yoruba people, is unique in Africa in representing human beings with extraordinary naturalism. The subject matter of most Ife art is centered around royal figures and their attendants, reflecting the political structure of a city-state ruled over by a divine king, the Oni of Ife. Sculpted heads were buried in the ground at the foot of giant trees and resurrected when they were used ritually as offerings or sacrifices, sometimes on an annual basis. Ife bronzes and terra-cottas have been recovered from groves containing sacred shrines, from crossroads, and from older sections of the Ife palace compound.
The physiognomy of this head has been modeled with extraordinary subtlety, and the striations, which may represent scarification patterns, are incised with great delicacy. The square crown, formed of four rectangular aprons overlying a conical form and embellished with a network of intersecting beads, is unparalleled in any other known examples of Ife art. Like the vast majority of Ife heads in terra-cotta, the Kimbell example seems to have been broken from a full-length figure. The serene and dignified countenance, as well as the elaborate crown, suggests that this head represents an Ife king (Oni).
Adult: Head, Possibly a King
Private collection, Switzerland;
purchased by (L & R Entwistle & Co., Ltd., New York and London);
purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1994.