Olowe of Ise (Yoruba, ca. 18731938)
Yoruba peoples; Nigeria
Wood, pigment; H. 71 in. (180.3 cm)
Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1996 (1996.558)
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 figuresa 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 patina.
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.