About This Artwork

Olowe of Ise (died 1938)
Ikere, Ekiti region, Nigeria
From the palace of the ogoga (king) of Ikere

Veranda Post of Enthroned King and Senior Wife (Opo Ogoga), 1910/14

Wood and pigment
152.5 x 31.75 x 40.6 cm (60 x 12 1/2 x 16 in.)

Major Acquisitions Centennial Fund, 1984.550

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. The small figures at the king's feet represent a junior wife, the flute-playing trickster-god Esu, and a fan bearer, now missing.

— Entry, Essential Guide, 2009, p. 16.

In its figural style, iconography, and the circumstances of its production, this architectural sculpture belongs to the court milieu that has informed the art of the Yoruba for centuries. The Africanist William Fagg has referred to the artist responsible for its creation “as the best and most original Yoruba carver” of the twentieth century. Olowe was born in the Ekiti town of Efon-Alaye, one of the great centers of Yoruba carving at the turn of the century. At an early age, he moved to Ise, a village to the southeast. There, according to Fagg, Olowe “became an emese or messenger of the arinjale, or king of Ise, and for many years, until his death in 1938, he had great fame in the area as a carver of architectural sculptures such as doors and veranda posts.

Olowe was a master of composition; he had what in Yoruba is called ojuona, or design consciousness. This term refers to the artist’s sensitivity to form and to the relationship of form to subject. In the artistry of Olowe, surface ornamentation complements formal properties. The scale and boldness of Olowe’s figures permitted him to carve elaborate hairstyles, to incise in intricate decorative patterning on the bodies, and to depict multiple strands of waist beads without diverting attention from the sculptural subject.

Of the three veranda posts commissioned, this one—the central post of the outer courtyard of the palace of Ise—is the most important and astonishing. It was the focal point of attention. Olowe’s skill as an artist reveals itself in his sensitivity to composition, for despite the openness of the sculpture of the king and queen, the clear separation of the figures, the sculptor succeeded in relating them to one another in a hieratic format. In this work a diagonal line intersects the vertical, relating the royal couple to one another. For example, the line of the queen’s jaw is picked up in the tail of the bird, forming a graceful curve with its counterpoint in the bird’s bill as it touches the crown. The diagonal line of the queen’s breasts continues in the jaw line of the king and is repeated in the lower arms of the king and queen. The pattern of the layer of beads around the queen’s wrist is reiterated in the beaded pattern on the crown. Through these visual associations of line and pattern, Olowe conveyed to the viewer the couple’s intimate relationship.

—Revised from, John Pemberton III, “Art and Rituals for Yoruba Sacred Kings,” The Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 15, no. 2 (1989), pp. 98-111.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

New York, Center for African Art, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, Sept. 21, 1989–Jan. 7, 1990, cat. 241; traveled to Art Institute of Chicago, Feb. 10–Apr. 1, 1990, Washington D.C., National Museum of African Art, May 8–Aug. 26, 1990, Cleveland Museum of Art, Sept. 26–Dec. 9, 1990, New Orleans Museum of Art, Jan. 11–Mar. 24, 1991, and Atlanta, High Museum, Apr. 23–June 16, 1991, Phoenix Art Museum, Sept. 4-Oct. 6.

Washington, D.C., National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Anonymous Has a Name: Olowe of Ise, A Yoruba Court Artist, Mar. 11–Sept. 1, 1998, no cat.

Publication History

Eva L. R Meyerowitz, “Wood-carving in Yoruba Country Today,” Africa 14, no. 2 (April 1943), pp. 66-70.

William Fagg and Margaret Plass, African Sculpture, (Studio Vista, a Dutton Vista Paperback, 1964), p. 91.

Esther Pasztory, "Hieratic Composition of West African Art," The Art Bulletin, 52 (1970), pp. 209-306, pl. 4.

Jacqueline DeLange, The Art and Peoples of Black Africa (E.P. Dutton & Co., 1974), pl. 76.

William Fagg and John Pemberton, Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), p. 160 (ill.).

J.C. Moughtin, ed., The Work of Z.R. Dmochowski: Nigerian Traditional Architecture, exh. cat. (Ethnographica, 1988), p. 37.

John Pemberton, "Art and Rituals for Yoruba Sacred Kings," Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 15, 2 (1989) pp. 96–111 (ill.).

Z.R. Dmochowski, An Introduction to Nigerian Traditional Architecture, vol. II, South-West and Central Nigeria (Ethnographica and National Commission of Museums and Monuments Nigeria, 1990), pl. 2.45 (ill.).

Roslyn Adele Walker, "The Ikere Palace: Veranda Posts by Olowe of Ise," African Arts 24, 1 (1991), p. 77.

Antonio Acosta Mallo and Pilar Llull Martinez de Boya, Arte del Africa Negra (Tribal Investigation and Preservation of African Art Center, 1992), p. 141 (ill.).

John Picton, "West Africa and the Guinea Coast," in Tom Phillips, ed., Africa: The Art of a Continent (Münich, Berlin, London, New York: Prestel, 1995), pp. 339-340 (ill.).

Herbert M. Cole, "Africa in the Dictionary of Art," African Arts (Winter 1997), p. 63 (ill.).

Moyo Okediji, "Art of the Yoruba," African Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 23, 2 (1997), pp. 168-169, no. 25 (ill.).

Suzanne Preston Blier, The Royal Arts of Africa, The Majesty of Form (New York: Harry N. Abrams), 1998), fig. 66.

Holland Cotter, "Anonymous Tribal Artisans Look Again," New York Times, Arts and Leisure section, Sunday, April 12, 1998.

Francis Kianka, ed., Olowe of Ise: A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings, exh. cat. (National Museum of African Art, 1998), figs. 10, 11, 12, 16 (ill.).

Raoul Lehuard, “Les Expositions,” Arts D’Afrique Noire, no. 106 (Summer 1998), pp. 45-55; 52 (ill.).

Roslyn A. Walker, Ọlọ́wẹ̀ of Isẹ̀: A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, 1998), fig. 4.

Kathleen Bickford Berzock, "African Art at the Art Institute of Chicago," African Arts 32, 4 (Winter 1999), pp. 30-31, fig. 15 (ill.).

Richard F. Townsend and Kathleen Bickford Berzock, “The Art Institute of Chicago New Galleries for African Art and Indian Art of the Americas,” in Tribal Arts 16-1, no. 62 (Winter 2011), p. 67, fig. 21.

Babatunde Lawal, Yoruba (Milan: 5 Continents), 2012, pl. 7.

Yomi Ola, Satires of Power in Yoruba Visual Culture (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2013), pp. 47–52; 50 (ill.).

Ownership History

Onijagbo Obasoro Alowolodu, Ogaga (King) of Ikere (reigned 1890-1928), Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria, from 1914; by descent to his heirs, Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria and later Federal Republic of Nigeria, until at least 1964 [in situ photographs from 1937, 1959, and 1964, copies in curatorial file]. Gaston T. de Havenon (died 1993), New York, N.Y., by 1981 [documentation in curatorial file]; sold to the Art Institute, 1984.

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