Nigeria: How Yoruba master sculptor Olowe of Ise stood the test of time

By Michael Kolawole
Posted on Thursday, 6 October 2022 11:18, updated on Friday, 7 October 2022 18:29

Detail of Ikere Palace door and lintel (c. 1910–14), Olowe of Ise, Yoruba peoples, Nigeria. British Museum, London

Hardwoods, no matter how strong, don't always stand the test of time, but great artists, no matter how long they have been dead, always live on. That's the case with Olowere (popularly called Olowe of Ise) the great Yoruba master wood carver, who passed on decades ago but lives on through his works.

Before he became a revered wood carver and designer in the art of Yoruba wood carving, Olowe was first a slave and servant. His mother was a war captive when she gave birth to him in Efon-Alaaye, a royal town and epicentre for Yoruba visual art in the 19th century.

Photo of Olowe of Ise, British Museum, London

As a child, he was given to the Arinjale of Ise in the Ekiti area as elemoso, the King’s servant. Half of his head was shaved to show his lowly status. Ise remained his home until his death.

‘Love for wood’

How Olowe learned to carve is not clear, but what is clear is his tremendous love for wood. History has it that he could look at a tree and envisage well-etched and ornamental doors, well-armed warriors on horsebacks, and naked women – with intricately braided hairstyles – kneeling.

While other carvers recycled the rusty patterns of older sculptors, Olowe innovated and modified the balance and scale of sculptures in three-dimensional styles. He shot to fame after he carved a programme of architectural sculptures for the Arinjale of Ise, which was followed by numerous commissions of architectural and ornamental designs for other kings and prominent people.

During this period, Olowe’s service was requested in Ilesa, Ikere, Akure, Idanre, Ogbagi and other towns to create decorated household artefacts and ritual objects for wealthy families.

His distinct styles of high and counter-reliefs tactile magic of carving put sculptures into motion. His works were unique from other palace carvers whose reliefs were ‘squashed’ flatter and low. The allegorical presentations of Olowe’s works often embodied and accentuated the wealth and power of the rulers who commissioned the work. Though the themes of his carving were established by patrons with strict traditions, he was permitted to experiment with styles and forms.

‘Master sculptor’

Loved by kings and revered by warriors, Olowe’s fame spread among kingdoms and he was conferred the title of ‘master sculptor’ by his contemporaries.

Olowe had a definite style that stood out from that of his peers. None of his works are similar in shape and form. One of Olowe’s reputable sculptures was an equestrian warrior veranda post he created for the exterior courtyard of a king’s palace.

The Equestrian Warrior
Credit: Olowe of Ise, Veranda Post, before 1938 (Yoruba peoples, Nigeria), wood, pigment, 180.3 x 28.6 x 35.6 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City)

The piece combined two classic Yoruba symbols of authority and leadership. The upper and the most distinguished part depicted the equestrian warrior sitting regally on a diminutive horse, holding a spear and a revolver. It symbolises the military strength that a typical Yoruba kingdom needs to ward off intruders and usurpers. The kneeling female figurine with exaggerated breasts at the base of the post, carrying the kingdom on her head, is a symbol of the feminine power of uplifting society.

Her daughters, carrying pots of water, are depicted as the inception of human life. The entire portrait embodies the ideas of power, politics, fertility, spirituality, and economic capability, which are prevalent structures within the Yoruba kingdom.

Whenever a dignified visitor would arrive at the Arinjale of Ise place, Olowe was summoned to portray the person on the spot. Legend has it that at times Olowe would discreetly carve underneath his robe so the visitor wouldn’t be aware that he was a model.

The Ogoga of Ikere

Olowe’s artistic representation of scenes in carved wood made the Arinjale of Ise recommend him to Ogaga of Ikere. It was reported that Olowe was in his 20s when he first saw some white men at the Ogoga’s palace. He was awed by their appearance, and to preserve the memory, he represented the scenario in detailed carved doors of iroko wood named Ogoga of Ikere.

The doors are carved in high relief and painted in polychrome. Each panel is arranged in five logs where Olowe deeply cuts his statuettes and puts them into action. On the right wing door, from the awning of each panel, he cleverly depicted the British travelling commissioner Captain Ambrose in the hammock.

On the left side, he illustrated the host Ogoga (king) of Ikere and his wife. Also among the images are three women holding cow tails; three women holding unspecified items and carrying babies on their backs; pecking birds, and the king’s emissaries, but how can one identify white men in carved frames of doors? To distinguish the white men, Olowe showed them wearing bowl hats.

An artist of universal appeal, Olowe of Ise was unique among Yoruba artists and remains without peer

Throne of an African Prince, 1930. By Olowe of Ise

In 1924, the pair of intricately etched and adorned wooden doors were mounted at the entrance to the timber exhibition in the Nigerian Pavilion of the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley, London. The door was in England as a kingdom-to-kingdom loan from Ogoga of Ikere. One magazine portrayed it as “the finest piece of West African carving that has ever reached England”.

The Ogoga of Ikere was intended to be acquired when the British Empire Exhibition closed in 1925. After protracted negotiations with the king of Ogoga, a deal was made and the museum acquired the majestic door. The acquisition of the Ogaga of Ikere by the British Museum gave Olowe of Ise global recognition.

Olowe was enriched by his craft and he bought a stretch of land on which his family still lives. No documents affirm his artistic significance in his community, as there was no means of keeping records back then, but his illustrious career was registered as oriki, Yoruba oral praise poetry often recited by one of his wives.

Cruelty of time

Sadly, after his death, no one in his community cared to preserve his works for posterity. Some years ago, the British Museum’s William Fagg journeyed to Ise, Ikere, Ilesa and New Idanre to see Olowe’s works in situ. Unfortunately, he found some lying around abandoned in courtyards, deteriorated by rain and wrecked by insects. Some are in fair condition and would need to be polished. To keep Olowe’s work alive, Fagg took a picture of the items he found, penned articles about them, and circulated Olowe’s fame.

Since Fagg’s commentary on Olowe’s life and works, other scholars have travelled to Ise and other communities Olowe worked in, to document his life and work.

In 1964, the Englishman John Picton travelled to Ise and Ikere to document Olowe’s artistic life. Years later, in 1988, the American professor, anthropologist and author John Pemberton III travelled down to Ise and Ikere to explore Olowe’s works.

In 1977, Roslyn Walker exhibited a collection of Olowe’s artefacts at the National Museum of African Art in Washington. The exhibition was accompanied by a 150-page catalogue of the show titled Olowe of Ise: A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings. “He was so good, he could do it by feel,” said Roslyn. “An artist of universal appeal, Olowe of Ise was unique among Yoruba artists and remains without peer.”

Enthroned King and Senior Wife. By (Olowe of Ise, early 20th century, wood and pigment (photo: Dr. Delinda Collier, Art Institute of Chicago)

In 1995, Roslyn Adele Walker, then director of the National Museum of African Art, visited Ise, Ikere, Ogbagi, Ilesha, and New Idanre to collect Olowe’s work

Even in death, Olowe continues to break boundaries. He still carves his way into museums and galleries across the world.

Art scholars and historians have written extensively about his brilliance.

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