Ife terracotta works constitute a large and diverse corpus that includes sculptures and vessels depicting human, animal, and other-worldly subjects. These works vary in size from nearly lifesize, full-length figures to tiny figurines only six inches high, and range in style from extreme naturalism to abstract forms. The original use of these works is unclear. Terracottas are usually associated with shrines but most of these pieces have been found in secondary sites where they have been integrated into contemporary ritual, making it difficult to know their original function. Works found both near and far from the centrally located palace suggest that the art objects were used not just by royalty but by a wide variety of people for diverse purposes. Among the many objects found are terracotta lids depicting animals that appear to have been divined to provide a lasting memory of a successful ritual.
The art-historical importance of Ife works lies in their highly developed and distinctive sculptural style, described alternately as naturalistic, portraitlike, and humanistic. These include human heads and figures depicting idealized crowned royalty and their attendants, as well as images of diseased, deformed, or captive persons. The delicately rendered vertical facial striations that appear on many of the sculptures may represent scarification patterns.
The naturalistic style was developed first in terracotta and subsequently transferred to other media. In addition to the large body of terracotta works is a much smaller number of copper and brass heads and full-body statues, including the unique seated figure of a man found in the village of Tada. In Yoruba tradition, women are the clayworkers. They produce both sacred and secular pieces and may have been the creators of the archaeological terracottas. Men are traditionally the sculptors of stone, metal, and wood. The production of bronze cast works, involving both terracotta and metalworking, may have been collaborative efforts.