The Afro-Modernist: Identity, Architecture & Sexuality, (Part Five) A Palace or a Villa?
Recently, a press conference took place where I was announced as a co-curator for the 2019 Lagos Biennale themed How to Build a Lagoon with Just a Bottle of Wine? I am quite pleased that I will have a platform to further explore my interests in the history of the city of Lagos, her urbanism and the opportunity to tie together the two worlds of art – design and architecture.
I have and will continue to spend time considering my curatorial piece, which will incorporate these interests of the city through a process of ‘knowledge, rupture and renewal’. But, I have chosen for this essay – part 5, to write about what I recently saw on social media about the Ooni of Ifé’s palace recently refurbished in the first quarter of 2018.
The refurbished palace resembles a typical Lagos – Banana Island villa, and it got me thinking about its appropriateness for the Ooni, and what otherwise should have been achieved. The Ooni has been instrumental in several philanthropic initiatives, namely the House of Oduduwa Foundation and Hopes Alive Initiative. His presence in the city also ensures that Ile-Ifé is a tourist destination. However, for a monarch who holds the most historically significant position in Yoruba land, how does this Brazilian villa exemplify a Yoruba-African palace?
The Ooni of Ifé’s palace serves as both the residence and the court of the traditional ruler of Ifé, the birthplace of the Yoruba race. This magnificent edifice lies in the ancient city of Ifé, and according to legend, is located where the first blacksmith vanished from earth to continue his existence underground. Otherwise known as Ile Oduduwa, the palace is named after the first king of the Yoruba race. The palace is indeed an in-depth reflection of ancient Ifé because it has existed since the founding of the city as far back as 500BC. It is a perfect symbol of power, authority and pride for all who trace their heritage to Ile-ifé. Even with the modernisation of the palace, its traditional and cultural aspects are preserved.
Originally built in 1938 as the official residence of the late Ooni Adesoji Aderemi, the palace also served as Olori Morisola Sijuwade’s residence from 1980 to 2015. Its refurbishment is in the style ofBrazilian architecture reminiscent of the returnee slaves to Lagos in the late 1800s. Several of them had amassed fortunes in Freetown, Sierra Leone with early exposure to transatlantic trade, predominantly in goods via refurbished former slave ships seized by the British Navy. The 1883 abolition of slave trade by Britain required her navy to police the coast of West African for defaulters. Most confiscated ships were auctioned and many purchased by former slaves who had a flair for entrepreneurship. This style of architecture swept through the south-western region of Nigeria in the early part of the 20th century as an inspirational aesthetic to display affluence. The current refurbishment works carried out in 2018 are an upgrade on the existing but in this new age of cultural awareness, is this the essence of an African palace?
Leo Frobenius saw and documented the original palace in 1910. It was also on this expedition that he saw the terracotta Ifé heads and the moulds for the bronze Ifé heads, long before their discovery in 1938. The building was said to be in an advanced stage of dilapidation; nevertheless its front, especially with the fine open square on which it stands, made an imposing effect. Frobenius estimated the walls to be one-metre-thick and six metres high. It was a wall with four large doorways leading to the interior, which was covered with a saddleback roof thatched with palm leaves. This roof as was customary, extended by the lean-to roof of the front veranda; it rested on the top of the walls and on a row of short posts about 60 centimetres high. Frobenius writes of the mighty entrance barred by a handsomely sculptured door, with carved figures on it. He made a thought-provoking lament about a ‘glorious edifice, built of bricks burnt, brilliant with coloured tiles and sundry ornament. In 1964, this original dilapidated palace was surveyed. Some of the building had been replaced with loam-built columns supporting corrugated iron roofs. As Dmochowski wrote, the building did not reflect the splendour of old Afin Ifé. “The least that should be done to pay justice to its past is to survey the remaining foundations of the palace before it’s too late”. 
My question is: Do we have a misconceived stereotype of what our building typology should look like? What is an African building? And in this case, what should a Yoruba palace look like? Is it ideal to question if the Brazilian-style by way of Portuguese influenced architecture is appropriate for a monarch whose lineage can be traced to 500BC?
Image: Emir of Kano Entrance Gate https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kano_Emir_Palace_Entrance_Kano_State_Nigeria.jpg
Consider the technological advancements of 1200’s, which brought about the Ifé bronzeheads in what is now present day Ifé, Nigeria – far more advanced when compared to works being produced in Europe at the time. In comparison to the Emir of Kano’s palace, the highest regal officer’s palace in Yorubaland is disappointing; the imagery alone speaks volumes. The question then is, if the Emir were to carry out a refurbishment/face lift today, would he end up going in the same direction? In all fairness, the inherited palace had already deviated so far off from the building sited in 1910 that it would also be wrong to blindly criticise.
It does leave room to contemplate the wider picture and questions about our identity in relation to buildings. Is it okay to simply adapt from external influences and disregard our culture? This approach contrasts greatly with the works produced by the European, Susan Wenger, whose work in Oshogbo draws heavily from local iconography.
This raised my concerns on how strongly our Ooni is aligned with his culture through buildings. It saddens me that on my personal journey of discovering identity, I see a massive but neglected opportunity to showcase our heritage. For such an exalted office, I believe there should be emphasis on rekindling this lost building technology and culture.
As I have previously written, the periods of slave trade, imperialism, colonisation and post-colonialism have influenced our ‘urban’ life and environment in complete contrast to our ancestors’, centuries ago. The historical periods here ensured a linear passage of knowledge to evolve our typology of building to modern day life did not occur, resulting in what we have today. In contrast, other aspects of our culture; art, fashion and music have transcended through the centuries. Building evolves with the advancement of materials and building technology, and it is clear that without that ‘transfer of knowledge’, it could not have been possible to transcend from the vernacular mud hut to urban concrete.
Image: Ife Palace and the plan showing cardinal orientation consistent with the city plan more generally. At its most basic, Ife is a central plan urban center, whose main avenues (originally four) at one time pierced the city walls near the cardinal points and joined at the palace and market that delimit the center.From Leo Frobeniusm, The Voice of Africa (New York  19800 v.1, 269 pg 204 African Cosmos: African Cultural Astronomy from Antiquity to the Present, Stellar Arts Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, The Monacelli Press 2012
The Ooni is a new king with a refurbished villa. Who am I to criticize a reigning monarch but I do sincerely bleed from the knowledge I am acquiring because of the awareness it provides. How can the aspirations of a palace in the eyes of subjects be married to the cultural supremacy of tradition? Why can’t all aspects of our culture be developed and celebrated?
It is ironic that the home of the most prominent figure in Yoruba culture today, does not reflect the Yoruba tradition. Perhaps, it just means he is a modern man who happens to be a king. History remembers but it also forgets. For future generations, we should raise questions about things like this. I have never been to see or been inside the palace. It would however be amazing to see what the interior looks like. I am unaware if other people have an opinion but collectively, we should be conscious of this.
- 2 An Introduction to Nigerian Traditional Architecture, Volume 2, South-West and Central Nigeria, Z.R. Dmochowski 1990
October 08, 2020
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