Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba

Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba, C. 1300AD, by Prof. Suzanne Preston Blier, Harvard University. A review by Barbara Steinberg.

Suzanne Preston Blier is our guide and intellectual archaeologist, unearthing the relationship between Yoruba history and art in Ife, Southwestern Nigeria. She meticulously describes how much risk people took to create some of the most beautiful copper-cast and terracotta statues ever made. The statues preserve Yoruba identity and serve as both witnesses to history and instruments of a civil war’s healing. They have represented the Yoruba-educated mind with dignified authority for 700 years.

Cultures can be defined by how they deal with risk. Western society is risk-averse. We have algorithms to minimize risk in financial markets, monotheistic assurances that we believe in the one true God, and metastasized surveillance so governments feel safe from attack.

Ancient Yoruba was different. Uncertainty was like the rain. You accepted what befell you with equanimity. Past and present were bound in a curvilinear sense of time, as the dead traveled freely from the spirit world to the real one through holes near the roots of trees. You flew in your imagination and signaled others through the symbolic meanings of objects. You moved between myth and history, religion and politics, and on the ground, these were all imbedded with each other

The indigenous people of Ife believed that the sky deity Obatala created Earth from the materials he carried in a snail’s shell. After Obatala drank palm wine and fell asleep, his brother, the deity Odudua took a soil-filled leaf, poured the soil onto a mound in the water, and let a chicken scatter the soil in all four directions to make Earth. This is the myth of origins.

Nigerians also had a saying. A chicken cries out when a hawk catches it, not to stop its death, but to let others know what happened. Art was the Yoruba reaction to risk – to let others know what happened.

There was history too. Around 1300 AD, Ife was a stop on the Silk Road and thrived as a cosmopolitan center of commerce and trade. However, Obalufon II ascended to the throne for his first period of rule over a fractured city due to the weak leadership of his father Obalufon I.

Sensing that Ife was ripe for conquest, Oranmiyan from the Yagba tribe in the north rode into Ife on horseback and took Obalufon II’s throne. As Obalufon II and Oranmiyan fought, there was also a frenzied battle between Obatala and Oduadua in the spirit world.

After an especially violent episode, when Oranmiyan took his staff and killed indigenous residents of Ife, an old woman pointed out that he was killing his own children. Queen Moremi, Oranmiyan’s wife, had an important role in the transition. Having fled the palace to join the rebel forces of Obalufon II, she learned the secrets of their attacks on the city. Wearing masks they had been confused with spirits.

Moremi would have to sacrifice her son on her return. But what resulted was a truce and, since Oranmiyan was no longer in Ife, Obalufon II regained power. With the support of the local population he started the second part of his rule. Their children would help solidify the eventual truce. Obalufon II established the Ogboni association and would commission local artists to make the statues that healed a broken world.

Eliminating judgment is a bet on infinite hope. Obalufon II commissioned statues and temples for leaders on both sides of the civil war. He chose copper to represent the longevity of his reign, which began c. 1300 AD, when art production soared. Blier describes this cultural flowering as the high-florescence era.

It didn’t last very long, as the Ogboni artists had a high-risk compass of their own. Inventing art speaks truth to power, which threatens a king’s ability to restore order. The workshops with double-tiered furnaces were suspected to affect fertility. Technologies used to produce the copper heads were so complex, casting flaws could be introduced during multiple parts of the process. Sculptural portrayals could be subject to identity disputes years later. The furnaces were fueled by palm oil residue and nuts, which raised temperatures to unprecedented levels. Arsenic soiled the air, and in 1348, Bubonic Plague took its toll.

Even with all this, the small society of Ife artists perfected a lost-wax copper-casting technique, which was more advanced than any empire in the world. Then production stopped. Scholars continue to debate why.

The most important archaeological site for Yoruba art from the high-florescence period was at Wunmonije. When a construction worker hit metal, 16 life-sized copper and copper-alloy heads were found. Given the Wunmonije sculptures’ stylistic similarity, scholars theorize that they were made by the same group of artists over a short period of time.

One group of works from here had no facial markings or crowns, beard-line holes, and lines decorating long necks. The most famous of these recalls the nearly pure copper mask of Obalufon II, c. 1300 AD. A second sculptural group at Wunmonije belonged to ritual figures. The British Museum has a head with vertical-lined facial markings who wears a crown with a round disk and plume above. Striated heads portrayed elite family members during Obalufon I’s reign, who became priestly families after Obalufon II returned to power. A unique achievement across history and empires, these sculptures must have taken a heavy toll on the artist, as the arsenic content was high.

Crowns also figured prominently in Yoruba creation myths. They provided the light necessary to create and live on Earth. In real Yoruba crowns, the round disk is made of mica because it reflects light. Above the disk was the power of the bird, which in real life, was represented in the red tail feather of the African grey parrot. The parrot was said to carry the mysteries of human speech.

The Yoruba had a trifecta: Ona, the design and creativity it took to make art; Ere, a divinity’s artistic presence; and Ase, the energy and strength of all things — the unknowable divinity.

While 14th Century traders exchanged ideas with other cultures in markets on the Silk Road, the Egyptian Coptic Cross caught the Yoruba’s attention. They used the cross motif to symbolize the crossroads between the real and spirit worlds, the cardinal directions, and ideas of cosmic order, as Christianity had no meaning to them.

Instead, the statues at Wunmonije preserve the African genius of invention, tolerant to risk but intolerant to misinterpretation, with eternal dignity, as they comprise a body of work whose skill has never been equaled. Their unfilled almond-shaped eyes gaze with equanimity, belying their remarkable power — being endowed with living force and the world of the sacred. Simultaneously, they transform themselves as well as the viewer.


I cannot do justice to the detailed scholarship of this 433-page book. I can only say it exists, alone among its peers, as the ultimate encyclopedia, and that it is worth the time to read it because Blier reconstructs what was erased by colonialism and the slave trade for the Yoruba, one ethnicity from Nigeria and Benin — her life’s work. How much more scholarship do we need to reconstruct to undo the erasure of history the slave trade imposed on the rest of Africa?


The African inventiveness and risk in art, which kidnapped people brought to the Western continent changed and defined it, but Countee Cullen’s words still haunt me.

Quaint, outlandish heathen gods
Black men fashion out of rods,
Clay, and brittle bits of stone,
In a likeness like their own,
My conversion came high-priced;
I belong to Jesus Christ,
Preacher of humility;
Heathen gods are naught to me.

One three centuries removed

From the scenes his fathers loved,

Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,

What is Africa to me?

Buy Suzanne’s book here

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