|Yoruba - Olowe of Ise (Yoruba, ca. 1873–1938)
|Giancarlo of the Italian African Arts discussion group on Yahoo posted a message to that group about the door directly below that was carved by Olowe
of Ise and is being offered by Jean David with Galerie Walu in Switzerland. He said that he had attended the opening of their Ibeji exhibition and there
were many wonderful Ibeji there. While he was there he got to see the door below that was carved by Olowe of Ise and he said it was one of the most
beautiful African objects he has ever seen.
I don't know the details on the door as far as the history, but from what I gathered from his message the door has been in Africa and was recently
purchased by Galerie Walu. I have emailed my friend Jean David with Galerie Walu to see if he can provide me any additional information that I can
pass along. I saw the door only in the photo below and thought it was absolutely amazing and wanted to share it with others.
Below the door I have also placed a few images of other works by Olowe of Ise and a link to the exhibition of his works that was done at the Museum of
African Art and a link to a great essay by David Zemanek on Yoruba carvers past and present.
You can click on the image of the door, as well as most of the photos on the page, to see the full size version of it and see a little more detail.
|Other examples of his works
|Veranda posts by Yoruba artist Olowe of Ise
(from Meyerowitz 1943:N.P.)
Photographed in 1943 by Eva L. R. Meyerowitz at the Ogoga's palace in Ikere, Nigeria
If you look in the photograph, in the back is a door carved in the same style as the door from
Galerie Walu. It is not the same door, just one in the same style.
|A photo of it from my virtual tour of the African art collection at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
|Caryatid Veranda Post, 20th century
Olowe of Ise (Yoruba, ca. 1873–1938)
Yoruba peoples; Nigeria
Wood, pigment; H. 71 in. (180.3 cm)
Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1996 (1996.558)
In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
This veranda post is attributed to Olowe of Ise, one of the most celebrated Yoruba sculptors of the past century. Admired as an innovator in both Yoruba
tradition and the West, Olowe produced works that embrace classic forms and dynamic compositions that convey the illusion of movement.
Olowe was born in Efon-Alaiye and in his youth moved southeast to Ise. Under the patronage of its king, the Arinjale, he carved a program of architectural
sculptures that established his artistic reputation. He subsequently received comparable palace commissions from regional leaders throughout
Yorubaland. During Olowe's lifetime, his works were exhibited both in and beyond the African continent. In 1924, a pair of doors carved for the palace at
Ikere were exhibited in London and acquired by the British Museum. Since that time, Olowe's artistic brilliance was recognized and his works have spread
to collections throughout the world.
Olowe carved at least two other tiered posts similar to this one that depict a kneeling female figure supporting a mounted equestrian. In Yoruba art, figures
on horseback usually represent kings, warriors, and hunters. In this representation, a mounted warrior carries the tools of his profession, namely a spear
in his left hand and a pistol in his right. The warrior's head is emphasized with prominent eyes and beard. Features such as the warrior's vest, the saddle,
and the muzzle of the diminutive horse are articulated through a deeply carved and textured surface of linear motifs. While the top portion of the
composition is compressed, the bottom half creates a greater feeling of openness. The lower tier features three figures—a female figure flanked by two
male porters carrying containers that appear to be gunpowder barrels. All three figures in this lower passage repeat the same gesture of raised arms
supporting a load that rests on the crown of the head. This juxtaposition of levels is further accentuated by the manner in which they are aligned. In each
of his other two-tiered veranda posts, Olowe followed the conventions of symmetry and frontality; here, however, he departs to create an increasingly
complex form. While the warrior faces directly forward, the caryatid figure below is turned counterclockwise so that she presents a three-quarter view. The
larger porter figure, with one hand in his trouser pocket, appears in line with the mounted warrior, while only the back of the smaller porter is visible. When
the sculpture is viewed from the back, the smaller porter is visible in profile, and the backs of the warrior and female figure are aligned. This emphasis on
asymmetry contributes to creating a feeling of dynamic movement, especially when viewed in the round. Most veranda posts were originally painted, but
now only traces of the vibrant red, white, and indigo that were used to cover the figure remain. The surface of this sculpture is now encrusted with a brown
Art historians have identified Olowe's signature style in a corpus of nearly fifty works. His exceptional talent as a master sculptor was well known within, and
beyond, the region in which he worked. He was honored by his contemporaries in the poetry of highly personal oral praise songs known as oriki. The oriki
is a celebration and form of tribute that both immortalizes artists and reflects the contemporary recognition they receive. In his oriki, Olowe is described as
"One who carves the hard wood of the iroko tree as though it were as soft as a calabash." The extensive poem also lists some of the numerous places his
work can be found: "If you visit the Ogoga's palace / And the one at Owo / …The same thing at Ukiti. / His work is there. / Mention Olowe's name at Ogbagi,
/ in Use, too, / …In Deji's palace, / …Olowe also worked at Ogotun / There was a carved lion. / That was taken to England. / With his hands he made it."
In addition to being an accomplished sculptor, Olowe was also responsible for a workshop that apprenticed many young artists. As a master sculptor, he
would supervise and train the members of his workshop until they were skilled enough to receive their own commissions or open their own workshops.
Yoruba sculptors traditionally learn their craft in an apprentice system, analogous to those of medieval and Renaissance Europe. It is not known with whom
Olowe trained. This gap in his biography, as well as the scarce information concerning the identities of other important African artists, reflects European
disinterest in ideas of African authorship during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when most of the works were taken from the continent, a
shortcoming that has only recently received scholarly attention.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
|Veranda post, by Olowe of Ise, ca. late 1920s. Yoruba; Akure, Nigeria.
Wood, 1.75m (69"). 1996.260.
Gift of Valerie Franklin and Collector's Choice 18.
In the collection of the Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO
This veranda post was created for the house of Chief Elefoshan in the town of Akure by
Olowe of Ise, the most highly regarded Yoruba carver of the twentieth century. Male and
female caryatid figures with intertwined arms support a warrior wearing a breastplate and
holding a spear; he is astride a significantly smaller mount. The composition and
hierarchical scale of this outstanding sculpture provide insight into Yoruba ideas about
|This veranda post is one of four sculpted for the palace at Ikere by the renowned Yoruba artist Olowe of Ise. It is considered among the artist's
masterpieces for the way it embodies his unique style, including the interrelationship of figures, their exaggerated proportions, and the open space between
them. While the king is the focal point, his portrayal suggests a ruler's dependence on others. The stately female figure behind the king represents his
senior wife. Her large scale and pose, with hands on the king's throne, underscore her importance. She had the critical role of placing the power-invested
crown on the king's head during his coronation. Moreover, the senior wife used political acumen and spiritual knowledge to protect the king's interests
during his reign.
Philips, Tom. Africa: The Art of a Continent, Guggenheim Museum. p. 146.
Olowe of Ise. "Veranda Post," Yoruba, Ise, Ondo State, Nigeria. Pigments on wood, 165.1 cm. high. Private Collection. Guggenheim Museum.
|Sotheby's New York - November 2005
PROPERTY FROM AN AMERICAN PRIVATE COLLECTION
A RARE AND IMPORTANT YORUBA DOOR BY OLOWE OF ISE (CA. 1875-1936), PROBABLY FOR IKÉRÉ PALACE
estimate 180,000—280,000 USD
Lot Sold. Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 216,000 USD
height 65 1/2 in. 166.4cm
ilekun, of rectangular form overall with notches and posts for hinges, the central panel carved in high relief, a border of concentric triangles surround the
checkered grid with stylized faces, rosettes and concentric circles framing the mise en scène with a central male figure marching with a staff in hand and
wearing an elaborate transversely crested coiffure against a shuttered background; exceptionally fine, aged and varied patina decorated with red ochre and
Harry A. Franklin Family Collection, Beverly Hills
Acquired from Sotheby's New York, April 21, 1990, lot 315
Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of Art and Thought, February 10 - April 1, 1990
Hanover, New Hampshire, The Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Curator's Choice, May 24, 1990 - June 30, 1993
LITERATURE AND REFERENCES
Walker, Olowe of Ise: A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings, 1998: 51, catalogue number 7, catalogue of the exhibition at the National Museum of African Art,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., March 15 - September 7, 1998
Olowe of Ise was the greatest Yoruba carver of the twentieth century. During his forty years as a mature carver (born c. 1875 and died c.1936), he created
hundreds of sculptures. Rosalyn A. Walker celebrated the artistry of Olowe in her exhibition and catalogue, Olowe of Ise: A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings, in
which all known works by Olowe were documented, including this very fine door (see figure 7). Since her publication, a superb bowl has been discovered
and added to the Olowe corpus (see Sotheby’s auction May 14, 2004, lot 60).
Olowe was a prolific carver. We know from his oriki, praise songs, by which Yoruba people are honored and remembered, that he carved for kings and
chiefs in towns throughout southern Ekiti: Ikere, Igede, Ukiti, Ogbaji, Use, Akure, Ogotun, as well as other communities where his work has been
photographed by travelers and researchers. This geographic scope covers a remarkable 70 to 80 square miles. This wide distribution demonstrates that
Olowe's work was highly sought after by those from other regions who went to Ise to commission him and those who brought him to their town to create
large-scale works. The range of his work is impressive: small ibeji figures in memory of deceased twins; mirror cases; bowls; shrine figures for the orisha,
Yoruba deities; prestige carvings of kneeling female figures holding a bowl containing kola nuts with which to greet visitors; drums, both the small gbedu and
larger ikarakara; veranda posts; and doors, some single panel, ilekun, and other grand palace entry doors with double panels, ilekun aafin.
Walker believes that this door was carved in the 1930’s, possibly for the palace of the Ogoga of Ikere. We know that from an early photograph by Iva L. R.
Meyerwitz taken in 1937 that it was not the smaller door on the palace veranda. However, there were many chambers in the palace that once had carved
doors, including some containing dedicated shrines to specific orisha. In an interview in 1988 with the youngest daughter of Obadeye I, the Ogoga of Ikere
from 1932-76, I was told that Olowe spent several years at the palace carving veranda posts and doors, and other sculptures as well.
Among the single panel doors that we may attribute to Olowe with confidence, this door is distinctive in having a single figure carved in the center panel. As
in all his bas-relief carvings, the figure stands forth from the panel, almost three dimensional in its sculptural form. In panels of his great double doors, row
upon row of figures, engaged in various activities, stand in bold relief, some leaning out far enough for an observer to put several fingers behind the upper
portion of their bodies. The intriguing questions are: what does the figure signify and what was the chamber behind the door? We know that Olowe had
carved doors for the entrances to the chambers or residences of Ifa priests, diviners known as babalawo, ‘father of secrets’ (see Walker 1998, figs. 8 and 9;
Abiodun, Drewal and Pemberton, 1991, fig. 59). Images of divination trays, opon Ifa, the principal ritual artifact, where human concerns and spiritual powers
meet, appear in the central panels. In the present door there is a figure holding what appears to be a staff, oshe. The upper portion is missing, but below
the figure’s hand is a cluster of bells. Such staffs symbolized the office of the one who had the authority to carry it. The top of the staff would have conveyed
an emblem, for example, a bird, as on a diviner’s staff, or a gathering of birds on the staffs of herbalist priests, along with additional bells. It is obvious that
the figure is male. Above his genitals he wears strands of waistbeads. His braided hair is styled in the fashion of a woman. In the town of Oshogbo, to the
southwest of the Ekiti area, I interviewed priests of orisha Oshun, goddess of medicinal waters, who bestows her beauty upon her devotees, blessing them
with children. Male priests are often the ‘children’ of Oshun. The priests braided their hair in the elaborate fashion of priestesses and wore waistbeads. The
cult of orisha Oshun is widespread in the southern and northern Ekiti areas. Hence, I would venture to say that, apart from the inconclusive evidence of the
damaged staff, the central figure is that of a priest of the Oshun cult and that the door was carved for the palace shrine for orisha Oshun.
The entire door also speaks the name of Olowe. The artist’s ‘eye for design,’ oju-ona, his mastery of composition, is clearly evident. Olowe was never
curtailed by a commitment to a strict organizational scheme, as in the doors carved by Areogun of Osi Ilorin, the great carver in northern Ekiti. The central
panel with figure is in the upper half, although the upper half is a bit more than half. The top register contains two motifs which Olowe used on many of his
carvings: two faces and a design of concentric circles. The lower portion of the composition has two rows of these same motifs, the lowest repeating the top
register and that immediately above it with the motifs reversed. Olowe has depicted the faces with prominent beards. On other door panels, where he has
used this motif, a third of the faces have beards or goatees and the remainder do not, as in the 26 faces in two columns on the palace door of Ise (Walker
1998, fig. 4.) Symmetry/asymmetry is a hallmark of Olowe’s sense of composition. In this door, he employs two basic motifs. As we have noted, their
placement entails both reflection and contrast. Moreover, here are the motifs of face and rosettes on either side of the central panel. On the right a vertical
series of three images: rosettes above and below a face without a beard. On the left four images: smaller rosettes above and below two smaller beardless
faces. Again, one sees the playful juxtaposition of symmetry/asymmetry. Surrounding the entire composition is a series of chevrons radiating outward,
framing the entire composition, without concern for side mirroring side, top mirroring bottom. The entire carving reveals a playfulness in the artistic
imagination of a skilled artist.
John Pemberton III
|Sotheby's New York - May 2004
PROPERTY FROM AN ENGLISH PRIVATE COLLECTION
A RARE AND IMPORTANT YORUBA BOWL BY OLOWE OF ISE
Estimate 150,000—250,000 USD
Lot Sold. Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 534,400 USD (Purchased by the Dallas Museum of Art)
height 19in. 48.3cm
the bowl supported by a kneeling female figure of highly refined and dynamic proportions, the tapering waist encircled by four ridged bands beneath the
torso pitched back and elaborately carved with raised, hatched and linear motifs framed by faceted shoulders leading to the elongated tapering neck, the
graceful jutting head with highly idiosyncratic features including large outlined eyes, incised scarification at the cheeks and temples and a chevron-shaped
mouth baring a gap-toothed smile, the circular base with four female caryatid figures emanating from the sides supporting the bowl and creating a cage for
the loose head beneath, their bent knees leading to arching backs and wearing ridged belts at the waist beneath pendant breasts, the gently tapering
necks supporting jutting angular faces each wearing crested coiffures, the elongated overlapping arms supporting the base of the bowl with finely
articulated, long fingers, the underside of the bowl textured with adze marks and decorated overall with sections of diamonds, broad x-shaped motifs and
zigzags, the lid surmounted by four crouching birds; the entire surface painted with multiple layers of yellow, red, green and black pigment.
Collected in Nigeria by Edwin Holland (1873-1929), a Sergeant in the British Army and an engineer who was appointed Assistant Superintendent for
Telegraphs in Nigeria (later Posts and Telegraphs, Southern Provinces) on January 10, 1912 and remained in that position until 1919, when he returned
By descent through the family
Olowe of Ise is considered the foremost Yoruba carver of the twentieth century. Born circa 1875 in Efon Alaye, Southern Ekiti, Olowe spent much of his
long life in Ise, at the palace of the Arinjale, where he carved a series of veranda posts and many other sculptures commissioned by kings for their
palaces, and by priests for their shrines, as well as ibeji figures for parents of deceased twins, and dolls for children. He resided for four years at the
palace of the Ogoga of Ikerre carving the magnificent doors and veranda posts which now may be seen in the collections of major museums in
Washington, D.C., Chicago, London, and Munich. In 1988, when I interviewed Olowe’s last surviving junior wife, Oloju-Ifun Olowe, she sang an oriki, a
praise song or attributive name, in honor of Olowe, “leader of all carvers,...the master carver,” which included the lines:
He went to the palace of the Ogoga
And spent four years there.
He was carving there.
If you visit the Ogoga’s palace
And the one at Owo,
The work of my husband is there.
Pay a visit to Igede,
You will find my husband’s work there.
The same thing at Ukiti.
His work is there.
Mention Olowe’s name at Ogbaga,
In Use, too,
My husband’s work can be found.
In Deji’s palace,
My husband worked at Akure.
Olowe also worked at Ogotun.
There was a carved lion
That was taken to England.
With his hands he made it.
In 1998 Roslyn A. Walker organized an exhibition at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution and prepared a catalogue in celebration of
Olowe of Ise: A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings. Exhibition and catalogue revealed Olowe to be a prolific carver, as his oriki indicated, but also an artist with
extraordinary skill and imagination. When he was at the height of his ability and fame in the early decades of the twentieth century, there were other highly
skilled carvers in the Ekiti area who were also masters in sculptural art: Agbonbiofe and Obembe of Efon Alaye in southern Ekiti; Bamgbose, Areogun,
Bamgboye and Osamuko in northern Ekiti. They were all great carvers and artists, but not one worked with the artistic imagination that is to be found in the
sculptures created by Olowe.
Two of Olowe’s most famous sculptures are similar in depicting a kneeling female figure holding a bowl, which is supported by smaller kneeling or standing
figures from below and with additional figures on the lid. In one instance, the figures are four dancing women. On the other, two cocks face one another.
Beneath the bowl and held within its own space is a man’s head that freely rolls about. One of the bowls is in the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art
Collection; the other is in the collection of the National Museum of African Art. Now there is a third, slightly smaller in scale but equally brilliant in its
complexity of composition and excellence of condition.
As on the other bowls, we have the large female figure whose hands touch the sides of a large bowl which is lifted high by four kneeling female figures. On
the lid, four birds peck at a mound of feed; and a male head is imprisoned behind the figures holding the bowl. The surface of the bowl and lid, as well as
the base, is decorated with a variety of designs found on many of Olowe’s carvings, their decorative significance enhanced by Olowe’s careful painting. He
was one of the few artists who painted many of his carvings and was a superb colorist. In a few places on the figures holding the bowl aloft, one can see
two or three layers of paint due to slight surface abrasion. There is an oil based paint of turquoise or light green with additional layers of paint used to
apply various colors. The interior of the bowl and lid are not painted, although there is some surface variation giving evidence of use.
Olowe’s genius as an artist was threefold. He was skilled in the use of his tools, ifarabale, a master of composition, oju-ona, and addressed his subject
matter with extraordinary insight, oju-inu. The large bowl, with its elaborately decorated surface, is beautifully balanced by the slender, kneeling female
figure whose long neck and soaring coiffure carries the viewer’s eye away from the bowl. And yet, her face concentrates on the bowl, since she too is a
container of power. The smaller figures below the massive bowl lift it with apparent ease, their bodies leaning out into the surrounding space, the hand of
one reaching up to hold onto the mother’s arm, for they are the children of her offering. Viewed from the mother’s back, which is skillfully incised and
painted, strengthening the vertical line in relationship to the sphere of the bowl, one observes that her body leans a bit to the right. However, Olowe places
her right hand a bit lower than the left hand on the bowl, thus catching its weight and thereby adding a graceful touch of motion to the composition.
In all three sculptures, Olowe is celebrating the aesthetic ideals of feminine beauty. In his essay, “Osun: the Seventeenth Odu,” Rowland Abiodun (2001)
cites the following Ifa verse collected by Wand Abimbola:
Whiteness is the beauty of the teeth;
Just as a long, graceful neck
And full, erect breasts make the beauty of women.
What is striking in each of these sculptures is the way in which Olowe depicts the “long, graceful neck.” A comparison of the three bowls reveals that Olowe
extends the length of the neck in the sculptures in the Disney-Tishman and National Museum of African Art collections. In each the neck is longer and
narrower, enhancing the graceful curve that extends from her feet to the elaborate hairstyle with the suggestion of a tilt of the head toward the opposing
birds or the dancing figures on the lid of the bowl. To be sure, the latter sculptures are somewhat larger than the one presented here. The sculpture in the
National Museum of African Art is by far the most ambitious in its sculptural program and in the skillful and detailed carving of all of the figures. In this work,
Olowe is pushing the limits of his conceptual powers, his virtuosity in composition, oju-ona, for the sculpture virtually explodes into space. The Disney-
Tishman and present work are similar in total composition and in their depiction of the four smaller female figures lifting the bowl, the larger kneeling female
figure and her soaring hair style. However, as we have noted, in the length and narrowness of the neck and the larger birds on the bowl, the carving
appears to be a development of the essential ideas of the smaller sculpture. Hence, one might reasonably conclude that the present sculpture is the
earliest of the three carvings.
Bowls such as this one were used by Yoruba rulers to hold kola nuts, which were given to visitors as a gesture of welcome and friendship. Often the guest
and others present would chew kola while conversing. The bowl may have been commissioned by its original owner, although it is more likely that it was a
presentation gift to an elder or person of importance by one who wished to express his admiration or, perhaps, gratitude for favors rendered. In the
crowned town of Ila-Orangun, which borders on the Ekiti area, each year the carvers would compete in giving the Oba, ruler, a carving on the occasion of
Odun Oro, the festival for the Oba’s crown. It is remembered that on one occasion, the Oba was so impressed by the skill and artistry of a carver from
Inurin’s compound that he gave one of his daughters to be a junior wife of the carver.
The sculpture has been in the possession of a family in England since the day it was brought by the present owner’s great uncle, Edwin Holland, from
Nigeria. Holland was a Sergeant in the British Army, and was an engineer whose specific skill was telegraphic work. He was appointed Assistant
Superintendent for Telegraphs in Nigeria (later Posts and Telegraphs, Southern Provinces) on January 10, 1912 and remained in that position until 1919,
when he returned to England. He died in 1929, at which time the sculpture came into the possession of the cousin of the present owner, from whom it was
received. It has never been out of the family. This clearly suggests that the carving may be dated between 1910 and 1918, especially if it is the case, as
suggested above, that this is the earliest of the three sculptures.
Professor John Pemberton III
4 March 2004
to go to the website for the exhibition at
the National Museum of African Art
|Yoruba Carvers - Past and Present
by David Zemanek
An essay posted on www.tribalartforum.org
A fantastic essay by David Zemanek that includes additional works by Olowe of Ise and well as other Yoruba carvers.
CLICK HERE to go to the essay
|Rand African Art