The Ife people, native to present-day Nigeria, founded the ancient Yoruba city of Ife around the 11th century AD. Renowned for their terracotta and bronze sculptures, the city became a major spiritual and artistic centre. Ife legends play a foundational role in Yoruba cosmology.

Origin of the Ife people

In the Yoruba religion, Olodumare, the Supreme God, commanded Obatala to create the world, but he was derailed by his love for palm wine. He lost sight of his purpose and became intoxicated, leaving the fate of the world to chance. Luckily, his younger brother Oduduwa took the initiative and grabbed the three items of creation. He descended from the heavens on a chain, throwing a handful of earth on the primordial ocean. He then placed a rooster on it so that it could spread the earth around, forming the ground on which Ile Ife was built. It was an awe-inspiring feat that would come to define the future of the Yoruba people.

Oduduwa’s genius didn’t end there. He planted a palm nut in a hole in the newly formed land, and from it grew a massive tree with sixteen branches. Each branch represented one of the early clans of Ife city-state, a potent symbol of the people’s unity. The act of usurping creation from his brother sparked an unending conflict that has lasted through the ages. Today, the cult groups of the two clans still re-enact the bitter rivalry during the Itapa New Year festival.

Artist impression of the first divine king of the Ife people in the form of digital art.

For his part, Oduduwa became the ancestor of the first divine king of the Yoruba. His greatness was such that his name became synonymous with the Yoruba nation, with his descendants occupying the throne of the Ife people till this day. On the other hand, Obatala was famous for creating the first Yoruba people out of clay, a magnificent feat that solidified his place in the pantheon of Yoruba gods.

The word “ife” has a deep meaning in the Yoruba language, signifying “expansion.” Therefore, the name “Ile-Ife” refers to the myth of origin as “The Land of Expansion.” It is a potent symbol of the Ife people’s boundless potential, the ever-expanding frontier of their culture and civilisation.

Art from the Ife people

The Ife people were true visionaries, imbuing their sculptures with an energy that defied the laws of physics. They knew that the Ase, the vital force that animates all living things, was held in the head, and so they crafted their figures with oversized craniums that radiated with inner power. Kings and gods were often the subjects of these works, depicted in all their grandeur and majesty.

The city of Ilé-Ifè was a bustling metropolis during the 12th and 14th centuries, with houses boasting potsherd pavements that glimmered in the sun. But it was the sculptures that truly put Ife on the map. The bronze, stone, and terracotta figures were unlike anything the world had seen before. They were realistic, capturing the subtle nuances of human expression with a skill that defied belief.

Yoruba Copper mask for King Obalufon, Ife People, Nigeria c. 1300 CE
By WaynaQhapaq – English Wikipedia, Public Domain

At the height of their creative powers, the Ife people produced works that were almost too perfect to be real. The terracotta, stone, and copper alloy sculptures were especially noteworthy, their regalia and facial markings distinguishing them as symbols of power and prestige. King Obalufon II was one of the Ife people’s most celebrated patrons, revered for his invention of bronze casting and honoured with a naturalistic copper life-size mask.

But even the great works of Ife could not stand the test of time. As the political and economic power shifted to nearby kingdoms, production declined, and the city’s artistic influence waned. Today, the bronze and terracotta artefacts created by this civilisation remain significant examples of naturalism in pre-colonial African art, a testament to the incredible skill and ingenuity of the artists who brought them to life. The glass beads they produced were equally remarkable, found as far away as Mali, Mauritania, and Ghana, a reminder of the far-reaching influence of this incredible civilisation.


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Sources

World History Encyclopedia. “Ife.” World History Encyclopedia. Last modified August 19, 2020. https://www.worldhistory.org/Ife/.

BlackPast. “Ile-Ife (ca. 500 B.C.E.-).” BlackPast. Last modified April 14, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/ile-ife-ca-500-b-c-e/.

Encyclopædia Britannica. s.v. “Ile-Ife.” Accessed February 13, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/place/Ile-Ife.