Date: 17th–18th century
Culture: Yoruba peoples, Owo group
Medium: Ivory, wood or coconut shell inlay
Dimensions: H. 8 1/4 x Diam. 4 5/8 in. (21 x 11.7 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1991
Accession Number: 1991.17.126a, b
This spectacular ivory vessel was once the treasured possession of an olowo, the ruler of the Yoruba kingdom of Owo in present-day southern Nigeria. Owo rose to regional prominence in the eighteenth century through trade and conquest, and became one of the largest states in West Africa at that time. It had close political ties to the Benin kingdom some seventy miles to the southeast, and much of Owo's courtly culture, including titles, costumes, and prestige sculpture, reflect a close association between the two centers.
The four figural groups along the top half of this vessel incorporate intricate imagery that communicates the vast and terrible powers of the olowo. In one motif, the ruler wears the traditional feathered crown and crossed baldrics associated with his position. His legs have been transformed into mudfish, recognizable by the whisker-like extensions on their faces. Proceeding counterclockwise, the nest composition portrays the king gripping the tails of two crocodiles. The prominent aquatic imagery calls to mind the king's praise names, or oriki, that liken him to a vast ocean into which all rivers flow, and whose unfathomable depths hold potent secrets and supernatural abilities. It also evokes the king's intimate relationship with Olokun, god of the sea. One who brings wealth and fertility to his adherents, Olokun was associated at this time with Portuguese merchants and soldiers who came from across the sea and became an important source of prosperity in the region. The pure white of the ivory, by implying the flashing, reflective surface of water and the foam of the sea, provides an additional visual connection to this deity.
The imagery inscribed throughout the surface of this vessel suggests the olowo's ability to link multiple realms—terrestrial and aquatic, human and divine—and draw power from those connections. An image of a human-faced bird with snakes for wings (a design found on royal items from throughout this region of West Africa) is yet another signifier of the king's capacity to combine potent attributes of different entities and domains. The final composition depicts an enormous python devouring a man while a witness watches impassively from the side. The python is a symbol of royalty, and this horrific display suggests how the olowo dispenses with his adversaries. The great serpent's body forms a ring at the top of the vessel that unites the four images physically and thematically.