Olowe of Ise (1860–1938)
Ikere, Ekiti region, Nigeria
From the palace of the king of Ikere
Veranda Post of Enthroned King and Senior Wife (Opo Ogoga)

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 regal sculpture originally faced visitors in the inner palace courtyard of the king of Ikere, a small town in southwestern Nigeria. The post was one of four sculpted by Olowe of Ise, one of the most acclaimed Yoruba artists of the early 20th century, for the palace veranda. (The other posts depict a queen presenting twin daughters, a man on horseback, and a kneeling woman supporting a horse and rider.)

Employing hierarchical proportion, in which the least important members of the royal group are the smallest and the most important are the largest, Olowe’s design presents an enthroned king seated in front of a towering female figure—his senior wife. Several smaller figures stand or kneel at the king’s feet. The size and strength of the senior wife suggests the importance of women in Yoruba society. Just as women support the community, the senior wife’s solid body, strong shoulders, columnar neck, and elaborate hairstyle form the architectural support for the post, which appears to hold up the veranda roof. (In fact, figural veranda posts like this do not bear weight.) The wife gazes down toward the king while her arms rest protectively on his throne. This gesture echoes the coronation ceremony at which the senior wife stands behind the king and places the crown upon his head, thus conveying that men cannot rule without the support of women.

Although he is physically smaller, the king retains important status, indicated by his central position in the grouping. He sits on the throne calmly and with authority. The true focus of the composition is not the king but his conical crown topped by a bird. Among the Yoruba, like their neighbors in the Kingdom of Benin, projections from the top of the head convey divine presence. The large, beaded crown is also a vital link to past rulers, who exercise power in the spiritual realm. The bird’s long beak, pointed toward the king, symbolizes the supernatural watchfulness that enables him to protect his people. At the same time, the bird represents powerful older women, female ancestors, and female deities who support the king and collectively known to the Yoruba as “our mothers.”

Idowa, Ijebu region, Nigeria
Owned by the Dagburewe (King) of Idowa
Crown (Ade)
Late 19th/mid-20th century

Glass beads, fabric, thread, and copper alloy
102.8 x 27.6 cm (40 1/2 x 10 7/8)
Cora Abrahamson Endowment, 1994.314

Elaborate beaded crowns are worn by rulers throughout the Yoruba kingdom. This beautiful example was one of several that once belonged to the king of Idowa, a town in southwestern Nigeria. Crowns symbolize the inner head or spiritual essence of a Yoruba king, a notion suggested by the common motif of beaded faces that appear on either side of this crown. Faces may also imply a link between a ruler and past kings, who are influential ancestors. The veil of beads lends mystery to the king and guards others from his potent gaze. The flock of birds can be interpreted in many ways, all suggesting that no man can rule without cooperation and support.

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