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  • Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Power, and Identity, c. 1300 by Suzanne Preston Blier
  • John Picton (bio)
Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Power, and Identity, c. 1300
by Suzanne Preston Blier
New York: Cambridge University Press, xxiv + 574 pp.; 52 color ill., 159 b/w ill., bibliography, index. $118.00 hardcover; $39.99 paper

So many of our questions about a history of Yoruba art, society, and culture revolve around the mythic status of Ife1 as the source, the cradle (Akinjogbin 1992), the very genesis (Fabunmi 1985) of Yoruba, with the mythic descent of the gods from the sky at the beginning of time. This is a popular view. On the other hand, there is the more mundane recognition that “Yoruba” is a modern ethnicity emerging, more or less, in the period 1850–1950 (Peel 2000). In this reading, “Yoruba” is a coming together of several centers, each with its specificity; Ife is but one—mightily important of course, but still only one—among a series of overlapping centers and peripheries, each with its own name and identity, that comprise the “more-or-less” region that today we have learned to call “Yoruba,” or “the Yoruba,” or “Yoruba-land,” or “the Yoruba-speaking peoples.” This is most obviously seen in the cults of deities and in the mythology of kingship, but it is also evident via trade and craft centers, an evolving ethnicity in which “Yoruba” is a retrospective judgment that identifies a specific, interrelated set of histories.2

Ife must indeed have been a significant center of trade, ritual, political energy, and visual culture at a time prior to the foundation of the Oyo and Benin City empires to its northwest and southeast. Were there other centers contemporary with Ife? The works of art known as the Lower Niger Bronze Industry (Peek and Picton 2016) suggest that there were, sharing forms and ideas amongst the peoples of the lower Niger region for a very long time; and the very wealth of Ife, presumably generated by its control over access to forest products in the long-distance trade networks across West Africa and the Sahara, is evidence enough for the expectation of rival cities and centers—but we have yet to know them archaeologically. Nevertheless, Suzanne Blier’s Art and Risk is by far the most thorough and intellectually coherent publication on the art and antiquities of Ife yet to appear in print. And Blier also has the unusual grace of acknowledging that her book is the not the definitive account: There is still more to be done; I shall offer a few suggestions in due course.

We had been led to imagine that the art of Ife was the work of two or perhaps three separate populations: some, but certainly not all, of the stone monuments perhaps the work of a long-forgotten hunter-gatherer people who first trod the forests3 and whose artifacts were incorporated into later cult contexts; in due course, a settled population of farmers developed a sculptural, figurative, naturalistic art using the clay also used for making domestic pottery4; and finally, a gang of newcomers established a brass- and copper-casting industry, transforming the existing forms of art, while also establishing the mythic progenitor from whom almost all Yoruba kings claim descent. Yet as Blier makes clear, there is something of the caricature in this account, an over-simplification of course, not least because the art of Ife is not just stone (whether granite, quartz, or schist—and the differences have cult and art-historical implications), ceramic, and copper alloy: There is wrought iron, glass-making, featherwork, dress, textiles, basketry, and the arts of the human body. And Blier considers everything within the full range of contexts available to us—archaeological and ethnographic, mythic and real-time historical, formal and aesthetic (what was the context in which this material was seen?), visual and poetic, current and contemporary. The works of art themselves are part of the data available to us, as much as the present-day ritual context, which Blier takes at face value as a source of information that brings together past and...


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