Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 30, 2016
Suzanne Preston Blier Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Power, and Identity, c. 1300 New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 595 pp.; 52 color ills.; 159 b/w ills. Cloth $115.00 (9781107021662)

Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Power, and Identity, c. 1300 is Suzanne Preston Blier’s most recent book, and represents a culmination of a research arc spanning from her days as a graduate student until the present. Drawing deeply from the existing archive of material published on the city of Ile-Ife (Ife) as well as her own interviews conducted over the first decade of the twenty-first century, Blier amasses a compendium on the city of Ife and the objects produced by its inhabitants in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The volume’s bibliography is perhaps the most comprehensive ever produced, and includes well-known publications by Frank Willett, William Fagg, Peter S. Garlake, Babatunde Lawal, and Rowland Abiodun (to all of whom Blier is indebted for her own analysis) alongside those by European colonial sources, many Yoruba scholars and archaeologists including Omotoso Eluyemi and Akinwumi Ogundiran, and a swath of unpublished papers, interviews, and oral histories.

Blier’s main concern in the text is to situate her own scholarly research in the copious yet contested discourse on the history of Ife and the art objects that remain from this enigmatic city. She openly confronts the fact that her research supports a view of Ife’s history that finds agreement with some scholars at the same time that it diverges from the histories proposed by other prominent historians in the field. Among Blier’s assertions is that the flourishing of Ife artistic production in copper alloy, ceramic, and glass beadwork took place during the rule of Obalufon II, a ruler she positions as transitional between what she sees as the end of a first dynasty of Ife kings and the beginning of a second. (Please note, all diacritical marks used in Yoruba orthography are omitted due to a lack of availability in digital formatting.) Blier’s thesis maintains that the large corpus of Ife objects was produced during a single generation by artists working across media (ceramic, metal, glass) in the service of Obalufon II. She has argued this for many years, in opposition to earlier scholars who felt the corpus of copper alloy and ceramic objects (masks and sculptures of rulers) represented a succession of kings and was produced over multiple generations.

Blier argues that after assuming power Obalufon II was forced out of Ife by newly arrived ethnic groups that unified as opposition forces. He was able to reclaim his rule, however, and unite the warring factions of Ife’s diverse indigenous and immigrant populations. He achieved this in large part, according to Blier, by using innovative art forms not only to honor the past but also to encourage unity in the present. The sculptures produced circa 1300 in Ife, Blier argues, were largely produced by the indigenous Igbo population of the city and “intended to honor both their leaders and those of their opponents, as well as the triumphant king, Obalufon II” (72). She further proposes that “the possibility that some of the early Ife artists were members of this center’s autochthonous Igbo populations, as Willett (1967) has suggested, and that many of these works were commissioned by Obalufon II after his return to power . . . may explain why Ife’s artists were willing to engage in such risks and technical challenges” (72). Risk, as a concept of creation, drives much of Blier’s analysis over the course of the volume. She points out the hazards inherent in making objects (smelting and creating metal alloys, as well as firing large-scale ceramics), the dangers associated with making the objects during a tense political climate, and the perils associated with viewing objects due to their agency and the sacred forces they were said to contain (454–58).

The most unique aspect of Blier’s project is her dovetailing of place (the city of Ife itself) with the artistic production that occurred there. While in earlier texts Blier focused on an analysis of the Ife objects (Suzanne Preston Blier, “Art in Ancient Ife, Birthplace of the Yoruba,” African Arts 45, no. 4 [Winter 2012]: 70–85), in this book she focuses on Ife itself as the locus of production. Through contemporary interviews, geographic information system mapping, and study of archaeological reports, she attempts to tie the objects back to their place(s) of origin, their original place of manufacture, their local use and reuse, and their role in the city that still imbricates the arts and culture of its past with its present fabric.

For example, in chapter 4, “Embedding Identity: Marking the Ife Body,” Blier offers a thorough analysis of the various facial markings seen in Ife art (vertical striations, cat whiskers, diagonal forehead and cheek marks, etc.) and how these relate to actual scarification patterns used by the various cultural groups known to have been living in Ife circa 1300. She goes further than previous scholarship, however, by having “taken into account the physical sites where the works of art in Ife showing different marks were unearthed, suggesting that these sites offer critical clues to both identity and meaning” (226). Vertical facial striations are identified with Obatala and were largely uncovered in shrines dedicated to Obalufon II and his father, Obalufon I (Osangangan Obamakin), the second Ife king. Blier argues that the shrine context for where these objects were kept, and where subsequent objects showing the same vertical striation pattern were added, help “to identify broader dynastic identities of figures shown in works for which we have no related data” (230). She also adds that the shrines denote this facial marking type as belonging to Ife’s indigenous populations, and that these shrines honor the first (autochthonous) inhabitants of Ife. Other facial patterns, such as plain-faced sculptures, Blier argues, are associated with Oranmiyan and the new arrivals to Ife who would form Ife’s second dynastic population at the end of Obalufon II’s reign (230–32).

As noted in the above example, Blier’s detail-driven examination of objects is guided by their features, shared and dissimilar, which she matches with place associations in the city of Ife. This is the organizational model for the book, and can prove confusing as objects are discussed discontinuously: they appear in multiple chapters in multiple contexts across the volume. Thus an entire section of chapter 2, “Experiencing Art at Ife: Sight, Site and Viewership,” is focused on the use of tiroo (potentiated eyeliner), both on the fourteenth-century copper and ceramic-head objects, as well as on living persons in the service of the court of Ife today. A subsequent section in chapter 4 returns to the facial markings on the copper and ceramic as signs of group and royal identity. The production and use of the copper and ceramic heads is the focus of chapter 5, while the artist workshops of the type that may have produced the objects are the subject of chapter 1. Readers thus looking for a holistic analysis of the copper alloy and ceramic heads (and figures) will find it here, but not in the traditional format of the formal/historical analyses to which they may be more accustomed.

The volume makes an effort to include as many images of Ife objects produced during the circa 1300 period (defined by Blier as circa 1250–1350) as possible. Over four hundred images of the individual objects are included here, along with contemporary photographs of Ife rulers, artists and residents, and maps and diagrams. These images together serve as a catalogue raisonné of Ife objects, and Blier further assists researchers by including the sources for all images in order to clarify when, where, and by whom the images were produced, as some of the objects they depict are no longer extant.

This effort is indeed laudable; at the same time, many of the images are poorly reproduced, a state of affairs that is understandable when the only record of an object is a blurry photograph in a 1913 publication by Leo Frobenius. Yet it is baffling when the object is a quartz stool housed at the British Museum and recently produced high-quality digital and print images of the object exist. While all of us realize the imperative and the financial investment inherent in publishing images alongside our art-historical analyses, the noble effort to include so many images is marred by the quality of the reproductions. As a result, the high cost of the volume (assumed to be in part because of image rights and reproduction costs) does not seem warranted in the face of so many inferior images.

The complexity and depth of Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba make it significant for scholars to consider in the ongoing debate over the history and meaning of objects originating at Ife prior to the fifteenth century. The specialized nature of its research, coupled with the assumption that readers bring a fair amount of knowledge of Ife and Yoruba art and culture with them to this book, makes it an unlikely candidate for an undergraduate or even graduate course volume. This is very much a presentation of a scholar’s investment with a corpus of important material over time. Some of Blier’s ideas, such as the concept of “risk,” seem less like concretely argued positions and more like thoughtful questions being posed in directions that may prove fruitful in years to come. If “risk” was indeed a conscious factor impregnating the production, use, and reuse of Ife objects produced circa 1300 in Ife as Blier states, what remains is to prove the uniqueness of this at Ife, as opposed to the universal risks faced by all artists across time and place, as production, patronage, and innovation require it by their very nature.

Susan Kart
Assistant Professor of the Arts of Africa; Art, Architecture and Design Department; Africana Studies Program, Lehigh University

(This review was commissioned prior to Suzanne Preston Blier becoming president of the College Art Association.)