Editor's note: The Kingdom of Ife sculptures are currently on display at the British Museum in London until 4th July and will move to the United States for a nationwide tour from September, starting at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas.
London, England (CNN) -- A hundred years ago when German explorer Leo Frobenius visited West Africa and came across some sculpted bronze heads and terracotta figures, he was sure he had discovered remains of the mythical lost city of Atlantis.
He refused to believe that the sophisticated and ornately carved bronze sculptures were made in Africa.
In his book, Voice of Africa, Frobenius wrote: "Before us stood a head of marvellous beauty, wonderfully cast in antique bronze, true to the life, incrusted with a patina of glorious dark green. This was, in very deed, the Olokun, Atlantic Africa's Poseidon."
"I was moved to silent melancholy at the thought that this assembly of degenerate and feeble-minded posterity should be the legitimate guardians of so much loveliness," he added.
Frobenius was referring to the people who lived in the Kingdom of Ife and whose artists, in fact, created the sculptures over the course of some four centuries. Leading art experts believe they are among the most aesthetically striking and technically sophisticated in the world.
The Ife kingdom was believed to have flourished from the 12th to the 15th centuries in the lush forests of the lower Niger in West Africa in what is today the south western region of Nigeria.
Frobenius' assertions helped reinforce long held assumptions of African art as primitive and inferior to European art.
However, 30 years later, Europeans were forced to revise these previously held assumptions when 18 brass and copper sculptures were discovered in the Ife kingdom. The works were later brought to London, where they were enthusiastically received.
A 1948 article in the Illustrated London News was headlined: "African art worthy to rank with the finest works of Italy and Greece" and "Donatellos of medieval Africa."
As critic Michael Glover notes in the UK's Independent newspaper, "At the same historical moment that Andrea del Verrocchio was doing his wonderfully painstaking, high-Renaissance drawing of a female head, anonymous artisans in Ife were working with brass, bronze, copper and terracotta to produce a series of exquisite heads that are not only the equal of Donatello in technical brilliance, but also just as naturalistic in their refinement. So much for African primitivism."
Now, a worldwide touring exhibition is bringing the show to modern audiences in the first-ever show dedicated to the Ife sculptures.
The exhibition features more than 100 bronze, terracotta and stone sculptures, ranging in date from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries.
Many of these have never been on display outside Nigeria. Most of the works are on loan from the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments.
The sculptures are currently on display at the British Museum in London until 4th July and will move to various states in the United States from September.
According to Neil Macgregor, Director of the British Museum, there was a conscious effort to display the Ife sculptures at the same time as an exhibition of Italian Renaissance drawings at the museum because he wanted to highlight the "relationship between Nigerian culture and the rest of the world."
"We wanted to make the point that nobody, when they learn European art history, studying Italy and Renaissance in the fourteenth, fifteenth centuries, is taught that at exactly the same time in West Africa, artistic production of the same level and the same quality is going on," he said during a talk on Nigeria at the museum.
The sculptures depict human figures from a cross-section of Ife society and provide a fascinating insight into local customs and beliefs of the time.
However, not much is known about the origins of the Ife casts or who they were made for or for what purpose.
Macgregor said: "This is a history that is still very much in the making. And it's not, of course, just the history of Ife. The bronze casting world of West Africa is an astonishingly large and rich one.
"The quality of the objects continues to astound and particularly the objects that have never been seen before," Macgregor continued. "On any view they are a masterpiece, not just of observation but of sculpting and casting."