Ife is regarded as the spiritual heartland of the Yoruba people living in Nigeria. According to Yoruba myth, Ife is the center of the creation of the world and all mankind. Ife is also considered the birthplace of some of the highest achievements of African art and culture, combining technical accomplishment with strong aesthetic appeal. From the 12th to the 15th century, Ife flourished as a powerful and wealthy cosmopolitan city-state in West Africa, in what is now modern Nigeria. Today Ife remains a major spiritual and religious center for the Yoruba people. Some of its shrines and groves are still in use and rituals to key gods are performed regularly.
Ife developed a refined and highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in stone, terracotta, and brass, to create a style unlike any in Africa at the time. The human figures portray a wide cross-section of Ife society, and include depictions of youth, disease, and idealized crown royalty.
These figurative terracotta sculptures, which represent the largest group of works, capture the diverse nature of Ife society. Several terracotta heads bear facial striations, suggesting cultural markings, while others depict women wearing regalia or jewelry, indicating high status.
“…these heads are believed to be associated with the coronation or the accession rituals of new rulers of Yoruba city-states, which owed allegiance to Ife.”
Ife terracotta art constitutes a large and diverse corpus of structural works that include sculptures and vessels depicting human, animal, and other-worldly subjects. The art-historical importance of Ife works lies in their highly developed and distinctive sculptural style, described alternatively as naturalistic, portrait-like, and humanistic. These include human heads and figures depicting idealized crowned royalty. The delicately rendered vertical facial striations that appear on many of the sculptures represent scarification patterns native to the Yoruba people.
In the Yoruba tradition, women are the clay workers. They produce both sacred and secular pieces.