Why I hated the British Museum’s Ife Exhibition

It’s been a while since the British Museum’s Ife exhibition closed, but time and distance have not made my heart fonder nor mitigated my disappointment in what should have been a great event.

What is it with the West and Africa? Just say ‘Africa’ over the sound of a cow-hide drum  and busloads of Westerners get  all misty-eyed about the ‘rhythm’ of ‘the people’, the ‘potential’ of the continent, and, if they remember their Introduction to African History 101, the injustice of Western ‘dark continent’ prejudices.  And as you entered the British Museum’s Kingdom of Ife exhibition this is pretty much what you got– drumming…’Africa’…’powerful kingdom’…beautiful sculptures ‘misinterpreted’ by Western explorers.  It was an Africanized Plato’s cave where perceptions were heaped on projections so the ‘reality’ of the message was nothing more than a shadowy phantasmagoria. It was a confused curatorial message; I exited the cave… er, exhibition, not knowing whether it was about the sculptures or Western perceptions of them.

There’s no doubt about it, these are heart-stoppingly beautiful sculptures.  If only that’s what the exhibition had been about.  I wish we’d been allowed greater freedom to enjoy the statues as works of art without the mountains of text and audio heaped around them. We can all appreciate that the statues were produced within a particular socio-religious context, but so was most of Western art.  Take Michelangelo’s David – that famously stunning sculptural representation of male physical perfection – we’re trusted to look at it without it being closeted in a museum case surrounded by a potted history of Western civilization. Why couldn’t that same interpretive space be given to the Ife statues?

Having said that I could have done without all the surrounding textual paraphernalia, I wish that what was there had been more coherent. Yes, the viewer was bombarded with information about the Ife kingdom, but it was strangely disjointed and lacking chronology or context. The emergence and development of the Ife kingdom wasn’t discussed in relation to anything else going on in the region, or indeed in the broader Atlantic world.  So you come away with the idea that this semi-mythical kingdom emerged at a point in the distant mists of African history some time before the Football World Cup, and that it was governed by some kings, who may or may not have been gods.

We all know that museums are not objective – what they display, how they display it, and when they display things are all imbued with political and cultural agendas.  This is particularly the case when different countries and cultures get involved, and where the relationship between those cultures has been characterized by war, slavery, or colonial oppression.  And the colonizer-colonized relationship hits you square on when you see West African art in the British museum. It is, after all, how most African art ended up there in the first place.  I share Kwame Opoku’s view that exhibitions such as this are ultimately part of the British Museum’s attempts to defend its moral case for holding on to cultural artefacts that belong to others.  And I felt kind of grubby for being part of it.

Anyway, I only hope this exhibition made some money for the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments and that the next time I see these Ife sculptures, it’s in Nigeria.