Olowe of Ise, veranda post (Yoruba peoples)


Olowe of Ise, Veranda Post, before 1938, Nigeria, Yoruba peoples, wood, pigment, 180.3 x 28.6 x 35.6 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City). Speakers: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Steven Zucker


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)

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)

In the early twentieth century, a Yoruba ruler commissioned this architectural column from one of the most renowned sculptors in the history of Yoruba art, Olowe of Ise. Born in the nineteenth century in Efon-Alaaye, a famed carving center, Olowe moved as a youth southeast to Ise. There, his artistic reputation was established when he carved a program of architectural sculptures for its king, the Arinjale. Subsequent commissions of architectural sculpture for the palaces of other regional leaders brought Olowe even greater recognition as a master sculptor. Admired by his contemporaries, Olowe’s artistic talent is recalled in oriki, or praise poems, composed in his honor. His accomplishments were also recognized in the West. In 1924, a pair of his palace doors was exhibited in London and acquired for The British Museum.

Olowe created this veranda post, one of several, for the exterior courtyard of a Yoruba palace. Carved from one piece of wood, the composition combines two classic Yoruba icons of power and leadership. The most prominent of these is the equestrian warrior, who is depicted frontally sitting regally on a diminutive horse. He holds a spear and a revolver. The image of the mounted warrior symbolizes the military might needed to form kingdoms. Local leaders adopted this image to validate their rule. At the base of the post, the kneeling female figure is depicted as the dominant form. In Yoruba culture, women are honored as the source of human life and embody ideas of spiritual, political, and economic power. These allegorical representations underscore the wealth and power of the ruler who commissioned the work.

Detail, Olowe of Ise, Veranda Post, before 1938 (Yoruba people, Nigeria), wood, pigment, 180.3 x 28.6 x 35.6 cm (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Detail, Olowe of Ise, Veranda Post, before 1938 (Yoruba people, Nigeria), wood, pigment, 180.3 x 28.6 x 35.6 cm (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Here, as in other examples of African sculpture, proportion and scale are altered and exaggerated to symbolize ideas. The disproportionately large heads represent character, self-control, and motivation. Eyes are large to suggest awareness. Among the Yoruba, the most beautiful people have a gap between their upper front teeth. The woman’s exaggerated breasts symbolize her ability to have children and to nurture them. The woman is represented slightly larger than the warrior, suggesting that she is the essential support. The warrior’s horse, less important than its rider, is depicted as smaller. The subordinate role of the two youths by the woman’s side is suggested by their small scale.

Detail, 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; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Detail, 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; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Stylistically, Olowe was very innovative in his composition. He is especially known for the manner in which figures project beyond the immediate boundaries of the sculptural space. Here, instead of the usual Yoruba practice of depicting figures in frontal poses, he sculpted the female figure turning toward the left with the two smaller attendants radiating outward at oblique angles. The compressed style of the upper portion of the column, with its weighty and self-contained equestrian figure, contrasts with the sense of kinetic energy created by the dynamic composition of multiple figures below. The sculpture’s formal complexity is enhanced by its textured surface, with details originally painted in black, white, and royal blue. The deep carving style was well suited to the intense raking sunlight of its original setting just inside an exterior veranda.

Detail, Olowe of Ise, Veranda Post, before 1938 (Yoruba people, Nigeria), wood, pigment, 180.3 x 28.6 x 35.6 cm (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Detail, Olowe of Ise, Veranda Post, before 1938 (Yoruba people, Nigeria), wood, pigment, 180.3 x 28.6 x 35.6 cm (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Yoruba, who live in southwestern Nigeria and southern Benin, are a diverse people with a rich cultural and artistic heritage of considerable antiquity. Although they number over 15 million people, the Yoruba embrace an overarching common identity through shared language and history. They trace the origins of both life and civilization to their founding city of Ile-Ife, which was a thriving urban center by the eleventh century. In the centuries that followed, numerous autonomous city-states developed, related through professed descent from Ile-Ife. In general, each city-state was governed by a sacred ruler, whose power was balanced by a council of elders. Artists working for these regional leaders produced a wide range of art forms designed to glorify the status of the king and his court.

 

© 2006 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (by permission)


Additional resources

More from Smarthistory on work by Olowe of Ise.

Read more about Olowe of Ise from the Dallas Museum of Art.

R.A. Walker, Olowe of Ise: A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 1998.


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in their galleries devoted to the art of Africa, looking at this large sculpture which was originally a veranda post. That is, it was this vertical sculpture, originally intended to be among the structural posts of a palace porch.

Dr. Peri Klemm: [0:23] This was created for a palace among the Yoruba in Nigeria by a well-known artist named Olowe of Ise. Ise is a region in southwestern Nigeria, where this artist came from.

Dr. Zucker: [0:36] There are numerous royal objects that this artist produced. This particular sculpture at the Met shows a mounted figure holding the attributes of a warrior or perhaps a warrior king. Let’s refer to him as a king since he represents military power, the power of the enthroned king and his rule.

Dr. Klemm: [0:55] Horses were introduced into this region — the Sahel — and to the Yoruba sometime in the 10th century.

Dr. Zucker: [1:02] In his left hand, the king holds a spear, this traditional instrument of power, but in his right hand, he holds a pistol, a modern weapon. He is frontal. He’s the largest figure, and he completely outstrips the horse in terms of his scale.

Dr. Klemm: [1:18] He is the largest figure, and by far the most important, but the horse that he sits on and the woman that the horse is resting on top of are both necessary for his rule.

Dr. Zucker: [1:30] It’s not just a celebration of the king’s power. The sculpture is also an expression of the source of his power, that his power is founded on the power of his community.

Dr. Klemm: [1:40] There’s the practical aspect, which is the cavalry that was used to win wars, the pistol and the spear. Then there’s the spiritual, which is represented by this woman who is completely nude except for a series of waist beads, who kneels in supplication and support of this important king.

Dr. Zucker: [1:59] One of the ways we know that her power is spiritual is that among the Yoruba, a nude woman would be a representation of fertility.

Dr. Klemm: [2:07] Here, then, the king is suggesting that he can rely on, he can be supported by this great potential to provide his community with fertile harvest, with all that they need to have an abundant life.

Dr. Zucker: [2:20] Also, the spiritual is represented by the bulging eyes, where we can still see a little bit of the original blue pigment, the idea that one can look into the spiritual realm.

Dr. Klemm: [2:31] Among the Yoruba, there are a series of masquerades, wooden structures donned by men. A complementary institution is spirit possession for women. In some cases, bulging eyes suggest her ability to see into the other realm and take on the spirit to support her community.

Dr. Zucker: [2:48] Both of those figures share another characteristic: a gap in the middle of their top teeth, a sign of beauty.

Dr. Klemm: [2:54] The kneeling figure below is flanked by two attendants, who are carved to angle out into our space. Each hold a bowl or a container that has been hollowed out on top of their heads. We want to walk around it. The way in which the figures are positioned beg to be encircled.

[3:13] While there were certainly court carvers prior to Olowe, he’s really known for his ability to break out of the mold of frontality.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] Architecture is generally rectilinear, and here the artist has preserved that at the very top, where we see the strictly geometric four-square post just above the king’s head, but then as the sculpture moves downward, there is an increasing freedom in terms of direction.

Dr. Klemm: [3:37] Each figure, although very simplified and abstract, with emphasis on the head, is also incredibly decorative. There’s embellishments on the man’s vest, on the horse saddle, and on the hair.

Dr. Zucker: [3:51] Many of those embellishments are actually rings that circulate around the figures and invite us to walk around in a very deliberate way. We see that on the bridle of the horse’s nose. We see it on the rings of the barrels that are being held by the attendants, and we see it on the waist beads of the woman below.

[4:08] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Christa Clarke, "Olowe of Ise, veranda post (Yoruba peoples)," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed February 24, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/olowe-of-ise-veranda-post/.