The categories given to the distinct periods of ancient Ife’s artistic production center around the paving of the city’s courtyards and passageways with terracotta bricks sometime around 1000 A.D., marking the beginning of Ife’s Pavement period. This practice is thought to be associated with the urbanization of Ife. The origin of the pavement is explained in a popular story: according to Yoruba mythology, Queen Oluwo ordered the construction of the pavement when her robes were muddied in the dirt.
Artistic production at Ife predates the construction of these pavements. The minimalist stone monoliths and other works of early Ife are generally attributed to the Archaic Era (before 800 A.D.) and Pre-Pavement Era (ca. 800–1000). The emergence of the highly specialized sculptural tradition of Ife is believed to have begun sometime after 800 A.D. and reached its height between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. These eras, from the pre- to post-Pavement periods (stretching from 800 to 1600), are marked by both an increasingly expressive naturalism in the depiction of human figures and the development of a highly abstract artistic style. Scholars disagree as to whether the portraitlike naturalism is a precursor of the more stylized form, or whether the naturalistic and abstract styles coexisted. A ritual vessel depicting a shrine with a naturalistic head flanked by two tapering cylindrical heads suggests that the two styles were contemporaneous. They may have been deliberately juxtaposed to represent the contrast or unity of an inner spirituality depicted in an abstract form, and an outer physicality shown through realism.
A center of political and religious power, Ife has been a formidable city-state through much of the second millennium A.D. The flowering of Ife art coincided with the commercial expansion of the neighboring city-state of Oyo, a strategically placed trading center, that channeled goods coming down the Niger River from the Songhai empire to Ife and other centers. The aesthetic style developed during the Pavement period of Ife art has been an ongoing influence in Yoruba sculptural styles since its inception. The fundamentally naturalistic style continues to be the basic form of representation of the human figure throughout Yorubaland. At the same time, the distinctively bulging eyes, flat, protruding, and parallel lips, and stylized ears seen in some of the works of medieval Ife art are also characteristic of present-day Yoruba sculpture.
Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “Ife Pre-Pavement and Pavement Era (800–1000 A.D.).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pave/hd_pave.htm (October 2001)