The three works that I chose that are art of portraiture are Head of a King,
Mask of an Lyoba, and Mother Goddess. The first two portraits are West African
Art from two different tribes, Ife, who created the Head of a King and Benin,
whom created the Mask of an Lyoba. The Mother Goddess is an Aztec piece. These
groups of people are from different cultures, time periods, and share different
religious beliefs. The similarity of the groups is the symbolic meaning the
portraitures brought to its people.
The first work is the Head of a King. This Ife creation altered the perception
that scholars had of the tribe. It was known that the Ife tribes did not do
portraits because of the spirits that could harm the subjects. The sculptures
that were discovered all seemed to resemble rulers, so the conclusion was that
the institution of kingship and the need to revere royal ancestors were strong
enough to overcome concerns. Also the figures were naturalistic. The
proportions of the few knownful figures are characteristically African.. The
heads may have been taken from life models, but seem more like idealized images.
An example is of the proportions of the head of the sculpture. These
proportions probably reflect a belief in the head’s importance as the abode of
the spirit, and the focus of the individual identity.
Ife is the sacred city of the Yoruba people, were naturalistic sculpture began.
The Benin tribe arose after the Ife, and was greatly influenced by their art.
Their portraits were also naturalistic, but as they grew more knowledgeable in
art, they drew away from the naturalistic works of the Ife people into stylized
works of their own. The Mask of an Lyoba is a beautiful ornamental mask of
royalty. This works shows that the people no longer use the naturalistic
approach, but a bold, more idealized, representation of its people. The art of
Benin is a royal art, only the oba could commission the works. This work was
commissioned in ivory, but most of the works were commissioned in brass. The
Benin transition from naturalistic to stylize is better explained in the brass
heads. It ranges from small, thinly cast, and naturalistic to large, thickly
cast, and highly stylized. The conclusion of scholars is that in their Early
Period, their heads were small and naturalistic from the Ife influence. Heads
then grew increasingly stylized during the Middle Period. Then in the Late
Period, the heads were very large and heavy, with angular stylized features and
an elaborate beaded crown.
In Mexico there was also portraitures. Specifically in the Aztec Empire were the
Mother Goddess was created. This was a strong and powerful empire that was
divided in classes. The religion was based on a complex pantheon that combined
the Aztec deities with more ancient ones that had long been worshiped in Central
Mexico. According to the Aztec belief, the gods created the current universe at
the ancient city of Teothhuacan. Which is similar to the Ife belief that Gods
came down and created the people. The culture and purpose of the people is then
to worship and honor their gods forever. This was done by sacrifice and in
their art. We are aware of the religion and the beliefs of the Aztec people
because of their art. The gods were represented in statues and paintings that
were narratives to teach their people and show respect to the gods. The Mother
Goddess was a broad shouldered figure with clawed hands and feet has a skirt of
twisted snakes. A pair of serpents, symbols of gushing blood, rise from her
neck to form her head. Their eyes are her eyes; their fangs, her tusks. The
writhing serpents of her skirt also form her body. Around her stump of a neck
hangs a necklace of sacrificial offerings- hands, heart, and a dangling skull.
Despite the surface intricacy, the sculpture’s simple, bold, and blocky forms
create a single visual whole. This dramatic impact was also heightened by the
This portraiture is very symbolic. Unlike the previous two works it is not of
the rulers or the people at the time, it is of a god. But much like the first
two works it is also idealized. This is what their mother god that guides them
should look like. The Ife people created works that were spiritual and
revealing their group’s identity. The Benin people, once understanding art
created stylized works that also expressed their identity, far more than
anything naturalistic did. All three works represents the people and what is
important to them. For the Aztec people it was their gods, and representing
them in a dramatic and powerful way to teach their people. While the Ife people
believed that the gods created them in likeness to themselves, so the portraits
were also of their people in the ideal form that the gods wanted. The Benin
culture were fascinated by art, and wanted to show respect to their rulers by
their representation of them.