Ancient Ife Art Inspires Future Kings and Queens

Posted on April 3, 2011 by


Ancient Nigerian Ife Art Inspires Future Kings and Queens

By Bro. Mxolisi

A column by Michael Paul Williams (Richmond [VA] Times Dispatch, 3/29/11) riveted my attention, as he wrote about the power of the ancient African past to inspire the leadership aspirations of African American high school students. He was giving specific reference to the Leadership Program of Richmond, VA’s Armstrong High School and the students who were viewing the “Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria” exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art.

Royal serenity from our ancient past

The thing that grabbed my attention was the fact that this visit was happening because many parents and elders who had experienced the exhibit felt strongly that it was something to which the youth should be exposed. Many of them had visited, “eager to know that their heritage is more than they see in the media,” reported Carmen Foster, director of community affairs for the museum. In the art they saw dimensions of their heritage that the business-as-usual American experience had not conveyed to them, including the values and wisdom that formed the foundation from which that art arose that needs to be passed on from generation to generation. Ms. Foster conveyed their thoughts and insights to the folks at Armstrong, and wheels started turning.

This brought to my mind some words from renowned scholar, Dr. Marimba Ani: “You’re not African because you’re born in Africa. You’re an African because Africa is born in you. It’s in your genes . . . your DNA . . . your entire biological make up. Whether you like it or not, that’s the way it is. However, if you were to embrace this truth with open arms . . . my, my, my . . . what a wonderful thing.”  It was heart-warming for me that this wonderful thing had happened for these elders and that they wanted it to happen for their youths.

Three dozen students in the Armstrong program visited the exhibit, after being prepped on what to look for pertaining to the leadership concepts embodied in the various pieces. A wooden Songye figure – 3-foot tall, representing a man, having an (animal?) horn rising from his head (symbolizing wisdom), having a face of copper strips and brass tacks (symbolizing wisdom and the mystery of transformation), and hands on each side of a prominent belly (metaphors for well-being and community care) – was one of the pieces of the prep session. Additionally, they were supplied with a booklet having questions and African proverbs pertaining to leadership, to help give focus to their visit to the exhibit.

One of the things emphasized for the students was the disproportionately large heads on the human figures: “The head is the most important part of your body in Yoruba culture. You hold your ashe’ – inner essence and power – in your head. . . If you want to be beautiful according to the Yoruba, you must have a beautiful, pure, inner head,” explained tour guide Karen Getty.

This brought to my mind the wisdom of ancient Kemet (Egypt), expressed in the writings of Ptah-Hotep, in The Husia: “If respect for right exists in the hearts of those who have been set in authority, they will be beneficent always and their wisdom shall endure forever. . . Their heart is in harmony with their tongue, their lips are true when they speak, their eyes see rightly and their ears hear that which is profitable for their children, so that they may do what is right and are free from unrighteousness.” We must teach the children!!

Dignity and wisdom calling still

Of course, the most important thing about this adventure is the impact that it had on the students. One student, a male senior, had this to say: “It makes you feel good because you really know what your culture was about . . . We weren’t all about slaves.” Another student, a female sophomore, basking in the magnificent vibrations of the kings, queens, and common folks of their ancient past, and the values and wisdom embodied in the exhibits said this: “It shows that you can be and do better than you are now.” Surely, she (and he) got at least a glimpse of the fact that we (our heritage) is far more than is presented in

In addition to the ancient art, the students were shown a photo of President Obama and Mrs. Obama, accompanied by this comment: “Look at the sense of dignity and pride they have. These are the king and queen of America. And you all are the future kings and queens of America.”

And I heard Ptah-Hotep again: “If a son and daughter accept the righteous teachings of their parents, none of their plans will go wrong . . . they will be valued by those of weight and substance and their speech will be informed by what they have heard . . . they will excel and their deeds will distinguish them.”

It is indeed a wonderful thing that the Ife art of ancient Nigeria found fertile ground in the spiritual-cultural DNA of these parents and elders, providing opportunity for the wisdom of ancient Kemet to manifest one more time, and providing an uplifting, liberating experience for some, if not all, of these students. What a wonderful thing it would be if more parents and elders could have such a wonderful experience and be moved to do all they can to see that their children – all our children – experience it also!