LONDON (REUTERS).- A show about the kingdom of Ife, which flourished in what is now Nigeria from the 12th to 15th centuries, underlines why sculptures found last century forced the West to revise its attitudes toward African art.
Long perceived as primitive, the status of the region's culture soared with the discovery in the early 20th century of bronze, copper and terracotta figures which captured the beauty, savagery and pain of Ife society with accuracy and grace.
A 1948 article in the Illustrated London News reproduced by the exhibition was headlined: "African art worthy to rank with the finest works of Italy and Greece" and "Donatellos of medieval Africa."
And critics reviewing the British Museum's "Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa" have said similar things more than 60 years later.
"The faces that gaze coolly past you from these cases are challenging and formidable in their beauty," wrote the Guardian's Jonathan Jones in a five-out-of-five star review.
"And they are disturbing to anyone who has any lingering belief in the uniqueness of European art.
"Sculptors in Ife imitated the human face as accurately and sensitively as any Greek, and matched the Greek feeling for harmony, balance and proportion."
The Telegraph's Richard Dorment calls the sculptures' quality "flabbergasting" and the exhibition "astounding."
So surprised were early Western explorers of Ife with the art they found there that they refused to believe it was African at all.
Germany's Leo Frobenius, who traveled to Ife in 1910, suspected he had found traces of the lost city of Atlantis and identified the local sea goddess Olokun with Greek god Poseidon.
"Ife opened a new kind of perspective to what was then seen as African," said curator Hassan Arero. "By 1910 the tables were turned completely when Ife came on to the scene."
The 100 or so works on display from March 4 to June 6 are almost all from Africa, unlike the Benin Bronzes, many of which were controversially taken out of Africa and ended up in the British Museum's permanent collection.
Ife was an important regional trading center still regarded today as the spiritual heartland of the Yoruba people living in Nigeria, Benin and their descendants around the world.
It flourished as a cosmopolitan city-state, was home to sacred groves in the surrounding forests and was importing copper and brass which its artisans cast using a wax process.
It declined in importance from the 14th and 15th centuries onwards, and although the exact cause is unknown, historians suspect that it was bypassed by alternative trade routes.
Many of the serene faces feature fine, meticulously-rendered lines running down them, as well as headdresses and jewelry befitting royalty.
But among the kings and queens are slaves and victims of sacrifice and execution, gagged and eyes bulging possibly at the realization of their fate.
Disease is also portrayed in graphic detail, as in a sculpture of a man with elephantiasis of the testicles which may have been made to appeal to the gods for a cure.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)