Ademakinwa Adebisi

Ancient Arts and the heterogeneous Linkage to Contemporary Aesthetics


This paper provides a typological analysis of artworks and artifacts in Ile-Ife museum where the heterogeneous aesthetics become visible through the categorization of the works as functional, decorative, or religious. The paper mainly utilizes the interviews of the major artists in the ancient town of Ife as well as those of established art critics in Nigeria. The paper reveals that the aesthetics of artworks in the town emanates from ancient artists’ commitment to realism and functionality of arts. Moreover, the realistic aesthetics was the existential means for the past masters and these have been transmuted into the motif of modern artists and they are, therefore, inexorably linked to the ancient artists. The paper maintains that the economic, social and religious pulls of the environment primarily exert this aesthetics on the ancient artists and the same pulls equally affect the modern artists’ motif as individuals and as conglomerate groups.


The Yoruba people are one of the most influential ethnic groups in Nigeria, and they have historical link to a large section of the population in the Republic of Benin, Brazil, Cuba and so on. The history of these people is closely linked to Ile-Ife, their mythical capital and ancestral home which is situated in Osun state of Nigeria. This is a city which Awoyinfa describes as:

the enchanted, the holy city, the home of divinities and mysterious spirits. It has also been discovered, of recent years, to be the home of antiquities and ancient works of art, the age and origin of which are still a mystery that has not yet been solved, while their restrained naturalism, the dignity and serenity of their expressions, and the technical excellence of their workmanship have rapidly led on all sides to their being given a place among the world’s masterpieces of art.( Dele Awoyinfa 1992,10)

The history of this ethnic group depends heavily on oral tradition and due to the unwritten nature of history and culture of most African peoples, one of the best method to study the culture and history of the Yoruba people is in the assessment of all the receptacles in which relics from their past have been preserved. And as artworks could serve as one of such receptacles, this paper tries to demonstrate how traditional artists document their concept of culture and history by means of overt and insinuated motifs while modern artists maintain departures that stemmed from individual artistic paradigms due to the incursion of globalization.

Thus, apart from situating Ile-Ife in Nigerian artistic space, this paper looks at functionality, style and the economic exigencies as the underlining factors determining the aesthetic input of the ancient and modern artists. The paper thus sees a continuum between the two as the prevailing social conditions bring their influence to bear on Ife arts and this is buttressed by the examples of stylistic preference from both the traditional and modern artists as visible in their artworks. Realism which invariably links both traditional and modern artists is also of significance so also is the relationship between the artists and their patrons which shows little variation in the influence they bear on the creative output of ancient and modern artists.

Categorization of Ancient Artifacts and the interrelatedness of Aesthetics

Generally, artworks in Ife National Museum, situated in the ancient city of Ile-Ife, Osun state of Nigeria can be divided into three genres and these are dependent on the motifs which capture their utility and execution. The artworks, part of what (Hartle 1978,16) refers to as material culture can be categorized into the functional, religious and the decorative spheres. However, this division is a matter of convenience as a straitjacketed division will be difficult to maintain in the long run.

Art objects in the form of tools and equipment of everyday use in their micro and macro forms can be packaged into the functional category. The tool could be farming implements made by blacksmith, leather-workers, bead-makers, potters, and etc. Objects which are in use in the day to day activities in the groves of some gods are also included. Various earthenware pots, timutimu (cushions), abebe (native fans) ako (scabbards), onde and igbadi (native medicine belts), knives and hoes were found to be kept in the museum and they could be put under this category.

The religious artworks are those identifiable with particular groves or deities. The paraphernalia of each grove and its god differentiates it from another. Inclusive are the objects of deities in different forms: molded bronze, carvings in stone and wood. Art images carved in stone are more interesting as the images of the gods in stone are sometimes believed to be a transmogrification of the gods into the non-mortal realm. The Ife people would say ‘o dota’ (that is the person has cast himself to become stone, thus, becoming immortal, they thereby correlate the indestructibility of stone with immortality (Lawal 2001,498-526 ). A person who does this could become a god. The multiplicity of gods in Yoruba land could be due to this reason and it could also be due to deification of people who were able to perform wonderful feats through their proficiency in magical charms.

The decorative arts include those material objects meant to enhance the aesthetic perception of man: bracelets, beads, necklaces, crowns, special caps and so on are in this category. Also included are objects in stone and bronze meant for shrines. Human figures in bronze and stone could also be attempts at preserving personalities in permanent form. A rich person could commission the sculpting of his own image or those of his relations dear to him such as father, grandfather, mother and etc.

However, these three categories of art objects are interrelated. As Jimoh Buraimo (2004, interview) confirms, the tools for everyday farming could also be used for religious purpose. They could also become decorative objects in the shrines. Moreover, the decorative objects could be functional, while they could at the same time be religious. For instance, in Ife museum some heads in wood and bronze forms have their mouths gagged. These heads, according to Mathew Ogunmola, a researcher/ ethnographer working in the museum, could be symbolic of those slaves who were killed in the various shrines and were later cast in wood, stone or bronze and kept as reference points.(Mathew Ogunmola 2004, interview)

There is also a peculiar road paving items which was said to have been ordered by an ancient Ife Queen to be used in the construction of all roads in Ife town. The Queen’s name, according to Awoyefa (1992, 32) is Luwo Gbagida. She was nicknamed ‘Ayare’ Akosulogbe. The name nickname literarily means “‘the wife’, the one who makes incision on yam.” This is derogatory as the senselessness of action such as creating wounds on yam indicates. The Queen was probably motivated by the aesthetic and functional consideration of this kind of road network. The beautiful road paving items were made from broken pots closely knit together with clay and stone. It is a very early form of interlocked constructed road and these functional and decorative roads are still found in some places in Ife.

Although, roads made of this kind of material were long lasting and aesthetically beautiful but they were also difficult and expensive to construct. The insistence of the Queen that all roads in the ancient town must be paved with such material did not sit well with the townspeople of Ife. The community construed her tenacity on the project as an exhibition of wickedness. This act alone has been cited by Mathew Ogunmola (2004, interview) as the reason which made Ife people forbid women from becoming rulers in Ife after the demise of this Queen.

Perhaps, what holds the key to the interrelatedness of the functional, decorative and the religious artworks is the profile of the artists involved and the motivation for their artistic creations. A school of thought expressed the possibility of the ancient artists not been professionals. By this, one sees professionalism in terms of training and expertise as opposed to amateurism, especially in a situation whereby a practitioner derives his livelihood from his profession. Understood this way, the amateur is more of a dabbler.

On the professionalism of ancient artists, Sina Oladeinde(2004, interview) observed that the ancient artists were slaves, commissioned by chiefs and kings to make art objects. His belief represents that of a school which posits that many ancient artists were slaves who got their commission to make decorative, religious and functional objects by fiat, especially from their masters. According to Oladeinde, their crudity or amateurish competence could be seen in the way they “often used real objects such as human heads while casting their bronze and, in fact, their use of real material objects has been identified as responsible for the accuracy and verisimilitude of their art objects.”(Sina Oladeinde 2004, interview)

However, the realism or the life-like nature of smaller and miniature iron and bronze casts in the museum seems to dent the veracity of this claim. At any rate, an analysis of this claim is beyond the purview of this paper.

The Transformation of Ancient Artworks to Modern Aesthetics

The Yoruba people’s proverb ‘there is nothing new under the heavens,’ seems to underline the relationship between antique and modern art forms. The proliferation of forms is what differentiates the antique and modern eras, but the social reality inextricably binds both through a linkage maintained from the past to the present. However, the functional, the decorative and the religious orientation of the artists are still maintained due to the socio-cultural reality which exerts a pull on their artistic output. As Lawrence Iyoha, a professional artist based in Ibadan enumerated: “modern artists in Nigeria use different forms to differentiate themselves from traditional artists of old and also buttress their creativity. They use pastel, cement, etc., necessarily to create different vision, but basically, they still maintain and follow the ancient genre.”(Lawrence Iyoha 2004,interview)

Thus, one could ask the questions: in what ways are the works of the modern woodcarvers, leatherworkers, bead makers, potters stone workers, blacksmith, bronze caster and the others different from those of the ancient ones?

In Ife of today, there are five professional woodcarvers, three professional bronze casters, one stone worker, and about seven blacksmiths. Artists in other media are almost non-existent. Like the ancient artists of old, the driving force behind their works is economic. And just like the ancient artists, they seemed to tailor their artistic talent to depict what is acceptable to the people within their social landscape. Thus, most of their works are steeped in a reality that is true to their socio-cultural background. The life-likeness of their creations is meant to show their commitment to the religious, economic and social life of the environment from where they derived their inspiration.

In the realm of artistic work creation, the contemporary artists are similarly inclined as the ancient ones. Again, most of what they created was commissioned, or what would turn out to be economically beneficial in the long run. As Lamidi Fakeye (1996, 38-47) aptly summarizes it, the artistic profession was not lucrative in the ancient days. Although they got compensations by enjoying special privileges, the traditional artists did not earn much money from their work in the olden days. Rather, they collected rations and drinks to keep body and soul together.

The ancient artists were affiliated to rich people, chiefs, or kings and they would have been dependent on the whims and caprices of the class and on the few people who were artistically appreciative and who could translate this appreciation into an economic reward for the artists.

The position of the modern artists has not changed much; their patrons are kings, chiefs, and people who could afford to appreciate their creations. But quite unlike the ancient artists, the modern artists enjoy greater patronage from patrons far and wide even outside the country. Transportation of heavy works to far away patrons is made possible by new means of transportation. Moreover, they could ride on the back of globalization as their works could be publicized on modern communication media including the internet where their works could be displayed and purchased by interested persons from other countries.

Also, the contemporary artists could afford to employ abstract motif in his works due to the heterogeneity of his patrons, thus, Western materials such as cement, pastel, watercolours and so on are made use of by contemporary artists to cater for the tastes of a variegated pool of patrons.

In spite of these reasons, the modern artists still maintain some affinity with the ancient ones. Firstly, in Yoruba land, the profession used to be a family business in which the profession is passed from the father to the sons. Artists’ family were usually designated as the olonas (artists) and many artists derived their names from the profession, thus, it becomes easier to identify an artist whose family are engaged with this profession as they bear names such as Onawunmi (I love artistry), Onayemi (artistry fits me), Olonade (the artist has come) and so on. In the modern period, some artists could trace their origins to many of these families.

Secondly, the problem of surviving in the profession has been of utmost importance to ancient artists and it is no less a concern to modern ones as well. The concern has impacted on the styles of the modern artists to bear some similarity to those of the ancient ones. This is because in spite of the abstract motifs, the use of modern methods and materials, the economic consideration is more often than not responsible for the dictate of styles and forms and these are in the similar veins as those of the ancient artists. In the town of Ife, the predominant forms and styles are in the realistic modes and as Lawrence Iyoha maintains, this is due to the fact that “when it comes to the most rewarding aspects of their enterprise, they embrace the ancient style on realism” (Lawrence Iyoha 2004, interview).

The verity of this claim becomes apparent in the works of Gabriel Afolayan, one of the five professional woodcarvers in Ife. The survival motive was responsible for the predominant realism and the heterogeneous nature of his works, thus, he carves functional, religious as well as decorative art objects such as: odo (mortars), ipon (wooden spoon), abo (bowls) opon (trays), oyiya(comb), ilu (drums); religious objects such as opa (short staff, serving as emblem for the gods), ere ibeji, (twin figure) and decorative objects such as opa itele (walking sticks), masks, veranda posts, wall plaques, etc. In comparing the level of patronage between the religious, decorative and functional art objects, he confirms that he is patronized more on the functional front than in any other genres since the use of those art objects is compulsory, while the same cannot be said of the others (Gabriel Afolayan 2004, interview).

Similarly, the works of Benjamin Eluyemi, one of the bronze casters, emphasized the importance of the realistic forms. According to Eluyemi, from experience garnered since 1935 when he became engaged in the profession, the functional artworks have been more lucrative and it was due to the artistic leanings of the Ife people (Benjamin Eluyemi 2004, interview).

He maintains that Ife people, from time immemorial have not been known to patronize artworks on an individual level, unless the artwork is made compulsory such as in a situation when an individual is ordered to procure a specific artwork by an oracle. The financial implication of commissioning an artist to embark on a work of art could be one of the reasons for this lack of patronage of artists in the olden days. It might also be responsible for the lukewarm attitude exhibited by the Ife people towards artists. Due to this, artists’ patrons, according to Eluyemi, have been people, not only from Ife, but many other well-to-do people from outside Ife and its environs.

Figure 1: The first statue to the upper left is the figure of Ooni Lafogido cast by anonymous artist, directly below it is the contemporary version of erstwhile Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuwade cast by Ben Eluyemi (2) To the upper right is the ancient Olokun head, a copy of the original was dug up in Ile-Ife by Frobenius in 1910. Below it is the contemporary imitation brass head of Ooni, Oba Okunade Sijuwade cast by Eluyemi. The emphasis here is the attempt at realistic motif by both ancient and modern artists. (M.A. Akintonde 2007, 38-43)

The ancient artists, in spite of their versatility in various genres, had to consider the economy of their clients, his desires and what is accruable from works of art before engaging in any projects. This way, the environment determined the forms and styles. Ancient artists had standard cost for each artwork they were commissioned to do and they were usually paid with varieties of farm products by the clients.

For instance, in the olden days, according to Lamidi Fakeye (1996,72) to commission an artist to carve something as small as ere ibeji (twin figure) by a client, the standard demands by artists for this work are: four roosters, sixteen big yams, two or four calabashes full of corns and beans, four gallons of palm oil and in addition “special food with bush meat also had to be provided daily for the artist, together with palm wine.”

Providing these could be beyond the capacity of many ancient people because when these materials are procured, they could amount to approximately #50,000.00 (approximately 138.00 US dollars). Thus, if the procurement of the artwork is not very compulsory, it is doubtful if ancient Ife people would deliberately put themselves in debt for the sake of acquiring any decorative art objects.

The modern artists are similarly affected by the socio-economic realities of their environment. As the cost of procuring artwork could be exorbitant to the ordinary people of ancient Ife, so also could the cost for commissioning some artworks be beyond the purview of ordinary contemporary Nigerians. For instance, the standard cost for the cited artwork ‘ere ibeji,’ converted to Nigerian currency is more than the basic salary of a civil servant for two months.

Due to the problem of survival, some traditional artists had to take on other professions to complement their primary vocation. Such professions include farming, divination, fishing etc. as the situation of Fakeye’s (1996) ancestral genealogy shows. Thus, in spite of the fact that Fakeye is from the lineage of artists, the family also engages in Ifa divination and this is responsible for the connotation inherent in the name ‘Ifakeye’ (Ifa has been added to ceremony or decoration).

In essence, Ife people’s lack of enthusiasm for art objects could, therefore, be traced to the financial implication of artistic works and the artists had to rely for patronage on people residing in other towns and villages in Yoruba land. Invariably, the factor has contributed to the dispersal and universality of Ife artists’ works and it could be the reason Ife artifacts were excavated at locations far beyond Ife and its environs. Again, it could be responsible for the fact that only rich people, chiefs, and kings could employ artists on a permanent basis and it could also explain the reason for the closeness of the workshops of Ife ancient artists to wealthy people’s homes.

The situation has not changed much for the modern artists in Ife today as they often situate their workshops near museums, King’s palace or near the residence of people with means to buy their works. The heterogeneity of their aesthetics could be seen in the various artworks. An example of modern artists’ versatility could be seen in the works of Eluyemi who could cast bronze for traditional religion worshippers, Christians, and Muslims. He is also patronized by politicians and state governments.

He could cite several examples of bronze objects that were commissioned by different churches, mosques in the town of Ife and beyond. These include candle holders, wall plaques, special staffs, crosses, etc. done in bronze. He could also cite great works done for government in other states and examples abound of human figures cast in bronze in memory of important personalities such as the gigantic statue of Obafemi Awolowo which he did, but caused a national crisis years ago when some unknown persons destroyed it at the state Governor’s House in Ibadan.


This paper identifies the genres of the antique artworks in Ife National Museum as falling into the functional, decorative and religious spheres and the heterogeneity stems from the ancient artists’ commitment to realism in their works as a means of survival. The lack of inclination by ancient artists in Ife not to engage in the non-functional artworks seems to be in tandem with Karaganov’s (1971, 6-7) theory that one cannot live in a society and be free of the society as “experience shows that the artists who does not understand the real link between art and reality, his dependence on society, inevitably puts himself in the position of a man who lives on illusion.”

We have thereby used this paradigm to assess motif of modern artists who are equally committed to realism and thus trace how they are intricately linked to their past ‘teachers.’ The past teachers, we discovered, took recourse to realism due to the economic and social pull of their environment and this pull, in spite of the intrusion of Western Civilization has not ceased to be significant to the artist seeking relevance in even this contemporary period.


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About the Author

Adebisi Ademakinwa holds a combined first degree in Theatre/Russian (1992), a Master of Arts in Theatre Arts (1995), a second Master of Arts was in European Studies (1998). He did his Ph.D. in African and European Drama and Theatre, all from the University of Ibadan. He has published in several national and international journals and has had an array of productions as a stage manager, actor, director, and playwright. He was the Secretary of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), University of Lagos branch and was the erstwhile Vice Chairman of the Union. He has written many plays including the play Osusu; the Story of Creation. Currently, Adebisi is a lecturer in the Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos, Nigeria.

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