Review: Dynasty and Divinity at IMA
The first work of art you encounter upon entering this exhibition of historic works by Yoruba people in what is now Nigeria and the Republic of Benin is, perhaps, the most memorable: a seated figure with one leg propped up, the other folded under, projecting a serene dignity reminiscent of the Buddhist divinity Kwan Yin. What makes this figure extraordinary is its creator's mastery of copper alloy and the way the metal has been modeled to create the soft illusion of flesh. You want to touch this piece, but there's also a temptation to sit and try to get on its contemplative wavelength.
Dynasty and Divinity consists of over 100 pieces of sculpture done in copper alloy, terra-cotta and stone that, for the most part, were created in the West African Kingdom of Ife (pronounced EE-fay) between the 12th and 15th centuries. Those seeking the full historic-anthropological experience will find plenty to read here. But others, whose bent is more sensual than scholarly, can delight in the wonderfully finished, elegant heads of royal personages, most often done in copper alloy; the terra-cotta models of animals and monsters, and primordial forms carved from granite. The show will be a revelation for anyone who thinks that people like the Yoruba somehow lacked the intention or taste for a sophisticated art of self-aggrandizement.
In 1910, a German explorer discovered a copper sculpture of a Yoruba head and was so amazed by its craft that he convinced himself he was looking at a bust of the Greek god Poseidon and that he'd discovered an artifact from the lost civilization of Atlantis. Makes you wonder what the world would be like with a little less imperial imagination and more respect for the real lives of people on the ground. The exhibition runs through January 15, 2012.