Myths, modes of Ife sculptures

Ile-Ife is located in Osun State, Ile-Ife stands tall for its glorious past.

The ancient city, which was the cradle of Yoruba civilisation, is regarded as the ancestral homeland of all Yoruba speakers, from which traditional, political and religious authorities were derived.

Classical Ife civilisation flourished between the 12th and 15thAD and this is attested to by sculptural works in Bronze, Stones, Terracotta and other artistic production in the form of beads and architectural elegance represented by potsherd pavements.

How these objects came to the limelight has often been attributed to the activities of a German explorer, Leo Frobenius, who came to Ile-Ife in 1910 to dig and cart away some of these magnificent and rare ancient arts. It must, however, be noted that the existence of some of these objects was naturally known to the people of Ile-Ife who, in the first case, were responsible for showing Frobenius the location of the objects.

From the available records of the regrettable transactions that took place, it is obvious that the people also knew the value of the objects.  Regarding who tricked who, that will forever remain a subject of controversy.  The exploits of Frobenius now spurned the British Colonial masters to begin to contemplate actions towards the prevention of looting of other Ife sites. Frobenius went ahead to make indelible comments about the Ife objects to the effect that they were so exquisite to such an extent that they could not have been the work of  the Ife people of  his days but rather that of some form of their superior ancestors whose works were comparable to those of Greek Civilization.

1938 was to be another hallmark year in the discoveries of Ife Bronzes which motivated the establishment of the Museum with close collaboration of the Ooni of Ife and colonial officers.  A long list of committed archaeologists worked over several decades to bring about more discoveries and better understanding of Ife Civilisation.

Ife sculptures occupy a place of pride among other Nigerian objects in national exhibitions and those that are taken out for international exhibitions. They represent and are also used as emblems of Yoruba culture.

Art critics have often argued that more should be done to comunicate Ifeancient civilisation to school children. And to serve this purpose and more, the Museum of Ife Antiquities now called National Museum Ile-Ife was set up during the colonial era.

Below is an illustrateion of how ancient artists documented this greatness of Ife in various media, such as clay (terracotta & potsherd pavements) stones, bronze and beads.



This is the most famous of the Ife bronze heads and it has a chequered history.

It was produced through lost-wax or cire-perdue casting method. The Olokun head was dug up in the late 19th Century in the Olokun Grove.  In the past it was used in yearly rites when honouring Olokun, the goddess of the sea and patroness of bead making.  Experts have said it probably represents an Ooni and in its original form, probably had nothing to do with Olokun. The Ori-Olokun is associated with wealth.

We see that people, since the times immemorial, have been so conscious about wealth and they make effort to see that their businesses prosper.

Sculpture of a couple

The couple above portrays an Ooni and his queen. They hold hands together with their legs entwined together. Their necks are heavily beaded.  They put on their head crowns and staff of office (Ase).

As seen from the object it further attest to what God wants from couples; that in their marriage vows they are to stand by themselves without breaking the vows. They are to cooperate with one another, because in the Holy book, God said a man will leave the father and mother and cling to his wife to become one flesh and here the above figure clearly demonstrate that in its action.

Bronze heads found

in a grove (1938)

This terracotta head is exhibited at the Ile-Ife Museum. It is the head of a queen. This object shows elements of royalty, meaning that all through the ages there have been Queens, Olori or Aya Obas, most especially in the western parts of Nigeria. Other states have their own title for king’s wives, e.g. in lgbo the Queen is called   Lolo.

Beaded neck

The beaded necklaces and bracelets on this torso (chest) are similar to those that are worn today by certain Yoruba traditional leaders. It is likely that a pair of bow-shaped badges once hung from the necklaces.  The use of beads is spread across the nation, some use it elaborately and some do not. The Obas and Obis in the southern parts use beads more elaborately as symbols of authority and power more than the traditional rulers in the North. Beads are profusely used in this figure which confirms that it is a royal object.


The ‘staff of Oranmiyan’, Opa Oranmiyan, a shaft of granite gneiss more than 5.4 meters in height, (about three times the height of an average man) is studded with spiral headed iron nails along its height.  According to Professor Willet, while the significance of the arrangement of nails is no longer known, a hole and engraved lines at the top of the object confirm the object’s phallic identity. This site is a focus of remembrance. It has historical and mythological significance, as the ancestors are remembered by a commemorative object. The granite column of Opa Oranmiyan is believed to be the walking stick of Oranmiyan, one of the sons of Oduduwa. Oranmiyan is said to be the fourth Ooni of Ife, a warrior and founder of the Kingdoms of Oyo and Benin.

Apart from Opa Oranmiyan, there are other stone sculptures called   Opa-ase (staff) given to a king when he is crowned.  This is regarded as staff of authority. The king in his power can give it to any of his senior chiefs to represent him in a function if he is not able to attend.

Idena (gatekeeper)

Idena figure is believed to be a representation of a security man.  This is shows that in the past there were also security challenges that warranted them to have gate keepers. This figure is exhibited at the National Museum, Lagos.

Contemporary uses of Ife art

The Ife objects are in different exhibitions both home and abroad, in private and National Museums. Ife bronze were first exhibited during the reign of Ooni Adesoji Aderemi  in 1948 at the British Museum. It is at this time that the bronze received wider attention of the Europeans.

Ife objects are exhibited at Volkerkunde Museum in Berlin Germany and British Museum. Ife objects now serve as regional and national symbols.  The bronze are no longer in use in their original context, which are within shrines.  Some Institutions/ Business enterprises now use replicas and drawings of the famous bronze (Ori- Olokun ) as symbols, branding and logo.  For example, many business operators consider the Ori-Olokun which is associated with wealth as appropriate for branding their  businesses.  Examples of such are Oyo State Television Station, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife (OAU), Odu’a Investment Company, and Airport Hotel, Ikeja-Lagos. In this hotel, one of their bars’ is named Ori-Olokun bar, and many reproductions of Ife art adorn their walls.


Museum is a house or set of buildings where objects of  historical, scientific, artistic value are preserved and displayed for the public view and education of the general public. Museum building is not just a place for keeping old relics, but it is by far, more than that.  It is where education takes place.

The mission of National Commission for Museums and Monuments is to educate the general public with some of these objects in its collections.  School children constitute a very important segment of any society. They are of especial significance for the museum world, for in essence museums are set up to convey to succeeding generations the achievement of our predecessors. It is therefore very clear why school children should be brought often to the museum.

In doing this, we must make children’s visits worthwhile. To achieve this, consultation with teachers before bringing students is very important.

As has been observed by Museum education experts, mid-stream consultation that allows meeting of minds between what the museum has to offer, the school curriculum, historical needs and what the children want is very important. This enables a form of genuine engagement, so schools and teachers should be seen as active partners rather than being mere recipients of what the museum has to offer. All stakeholders here should know how to measure success.  Each child is entitled to benefit from learning experiences in the museum, thus very important to find out what students really think of our collections and exhibits.

We should not hesitate to make the best use of new technologies, which are indeed very prevalent as they provide rich, interactive learning experiences they must not be ignored.  New technologies encourage creativity and innovation.

It has been advocated that we should use objects/museums to deliver non-core and cross curricula activities.  In this case, we use artifacts as spring board for class activities and use museum as stimulus for work as contained in the national curriculum.  Museums enable experiencing the world through art in a different way.  In this way   children are thought how to really see things deeper than mere surface level.

Ife Museum sculptures are used to provide new and stimulating learning environments, providing access to rich resources which are meaningful and relevant both to the curriculum and the pupils.  Information concerning production, materials utilised and historical implication is presented to students. These are in addition to their aesthetic value, environmental relevance, and history of objects, value, and their relationship with other objects.

In exploring the symbolic meaning of objects students get a deeper understanding of the cultural meaning behind them. The physical experience of visiting Ile- Ife museum, right at the heart of the cradle of the Yoruba race, creates huge excitement.  Indeed a visit to Ife museum should be a rite of passage for all students of the South western Nigeria.

Careful readers of this article would have noticed that some issues were left unattended to. This is deliberate. After listening carefully to the museum educators at Ife museum, students should be able to answer some of the questions I will list below and then follow up with their own questions.

A few samples of questions will suffice for now: When were the Ife sculptures produced? Who produced them? Why were they produced? Who owned them? When and how where they brought to the museum?

Are there other art objects in the media?

When these are answered satisfactorily, the students can then move to the next level of asking questions which relates to Ife sculptures to other ancient art traditions of Nigeria.

Brilliant students from Kwara State for example could ask about possible relationship between Ife and Esie soapstone sculptures. Do the Ile -Ife people have stories of people turning into stone? Drinking from their wealth of experience of Benin art, students from the south- south geo-cultural zone might ask if Ife art could be regarded as ‘Court art’ the way those of Benin are referred to.

They might want to ask, where is the equivalent of Igun Street in Ile-Ife? Students from other parts of Yoruba land might also want to ask why Ife art is deficient in wood sculpture. There are many more ways of interrogating Ife sculptures and visitors can be rest assured that the ever willing educators         of Ile -Ife museum are always ready to provide answers and where not exactly possible to provide precise ones, they can at least shine a little light into complex issues.

At the museum, there are off course rules to obey, token to be paid to enable one benefit from a rewarding museum experience.


Written by PH

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