Controversy around Damien Hirst’s golden (Ife) head on view in Venice

I don’t know if you have noticed, but the influence of traditional African art on contemporary artists has never been so big. When frequenting any contemporary art fair these days, chances are big one runs into some very explicit references, and more often just plain copies of African masks and statues.

This trend is not new of course. Kendall Geers, for example, already made ‘nail figures’ (citing Kongo nkondi statues) in the early 2000s. But also many younger artists are following this trend and finding inspiration in the historical art of the African continent. Damien Hirst, one of the best known ‘Young British Artist’ of the 1990s, could not resist to join in, and his current exhibition in Venice, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, features a copy in massive gold of an ancient Ife head from Nigeria.

The head (illustrated above and below) is presented with the label ‘Golden head (Female)’, that, without any reference to its inspiration, which has been causing a huge controversy. While all of the artworks in the exhibition imitate or are inspired by the arts from a wide range of cultures throughout history, Ife has proven to a somewhat more sensitive subjet and a major fuzz about this head has emerged. Even CNN has dedicated an article to it: Damien Hirst accused of copying African art at Venice Biennale. On social media, Hirst has been widely branded as a ‘thief’, and the head continues to generate a lot of critique in so far even a spokesperson of Hirst had to react clarifying Ife is in fact cited in the exhibition guide. But the damage was done.

Things got rolling when the Nigerian artist Victor Ehighale Ehihkamenor, currently exhibiting at the Nigerian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, openly criticized Hirst in articles in the New York Times and Huffington Post. It is interesting to note that none of the representatives of other cited cultures have reacted to the show. There are numerous copies of Egyptian and Greek statues, for example. But none of those cultures have almost all of their national heritage outside their country of course, which is the case with Nigeria’s old Ife Kingdom. To make it even more interesting, also in the general press the show has received a lot of negative critique; ARTnews calling it ‘undoubtedly one of the worst exhibitions of contemporary art staged in the past decade’ (here) or generating statements like that it ‘offers scale in lieu of ambition, and kitsch masquerading as high art’ (in The Telegraph).

For my part, I think it is too soon to judge Damien Hirst – let’s see in 50 years what remains of his work. And, the famous Salon des Refusés in mind, I do recall some other artists who were once rejected by the general public. Jeff Koons also just copied someone else’s work (read about that here). Anyway, if it made only a handful of new people genuinely interested in the ancient art of Nigeria, we can only be happy about the effect this head provoked.


Photo of the day: the Wunmonije heads

Published in Drewal (H.J.) & Schildkrout (E.), Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, 2009: p. 4, fig. 2
The Wunmonije heads at the British Museum in 1948. Published in Drewal (H.J.) & Schildkrout (E.), Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, 2009: p. 4, fig. 2

In January 1938, two feet below the ground of the Wunmonije Compound in Ife, a cache of bronze heads was uncovered while a foundation for a house was being dug. It would become one of the most important chance finds in the history of African art. Unfortunately no photos of the excavations exist. Shown above are some of the heads unpacked at the British Museum, where the Ooni had sent them in 1948. It’s quite a remarkable scene to see such an important part of Nigeria’s art history placed arbitrary on that table.

The Wunmonije compound, then just behind the palace of the Ooni of Ife, formerly was located within the enclosing palace wall. While clearing away the topsoil the workmen had struck metal and further digging revealed a group of cast heads. Thirteen life-size heads and a half-lifesize half figure were unearthed. Soon after, the same site yielded additional finds of five more works: a life-size head, three smaller heads, and a torso. The identification and function of these heads remain uncertain. It remains a mystery why this cache was ever buried; possibly this hoard once formed part of a royal altar.

Most of the objects found in the Wunmonije Compound ended up in the National Museum of Ife, but a few pieces left Nigeria. One is now in the collections of the British Museum – the head far left on the above picture. It was purchased in Ife by Mr. Bates, then editor of the Nigerian Daily Times and was subsequently acquired by Sir (later Lord) Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, acting on behalf of the National Art Collections Fund, which donated it to the British Museum in 1939. Two heads that were purchased by William Bascom (a research student from Northwestern University, Illiniois, who was based in Ife at the time) in 1938 were later returned to Nigeria as a gift in 1950 – a story documented in an article by Simon Ottenberg (Further Light on W.R. Bascom and the Ife Bronzes, in Africa, Vol. 64, No. 4, 1994: pp. 561-568).