Artists & Designers

Olowe of Ise

The artist who sculpted the kneeling female figure with bowl (2004.16.McD) in the DMA collection was named Olowere. He was commonly known as Olowe of Ise. Ise is the town in which he lived most of his life. He was born around 1875, before vital statistics were routinely recorded in Nigeria and before interviewing artists became customary. He left no diaries or bills of sale of his work; he probably could not write in either English or Yoruba. In the absence of conventional sources of information, where does one begin to search for information with which to reconstruct a tradition- based African artist’s biography? The sources include written, sometimes published, accounts by Europeans who met the artist and documented his art; in situ photography of his sculptures; the indigenous record, in the form of an oriki, praise song; and descendants’ recollections.

Olowe of Ise was born in Efon-Alaaye, a royal town in Nigeria that was an important center for Yoruba visual art in the 19th century. At a young age, he moved to Ise, where he served the Arinjale, or king, as a court messenger. Ise remained his home base throughout his life, until he was about 63 years old. When and where Olowe learned to carve is unknown. According to his descendants, he was self-taught. It is more likely that once his talent had been discovered, he was apprenticed to a master sculptor to gain command of the Yoruba canon and hone his carving skills. Eventually Olowe became the master of his own atelier, or workshop. According to some sources, he had as many as fifteen assistants; others claim he worked alone. His chief patron was the Arinjale of Ise, who loaned him to other Yoruba kings and prominent families to beautify their residences with sculpted veranda posts and doors. His patrons, who also included religious specialists, commissioned him to carve masks, figures, divination boards, and drums for religious worship activities. He also carved children’s toys and game boards. Olowe’s most distant patron was at Idanre, some sixty miles south of Ise. Olowe of Ise was active from around the turn of the 20th century until his death in approximately 1938.

In 1924 Olowe of Ise’s work, if not his name, reached England. A two-panel painted door and lintel ensemble with figures carved in exceedingly high relief from the Ogoga’s (king’s) palace at Ikere was selected for display at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, London. It was installed at the entrance to the timber exhibit in the Nigerian Pavilion. The door ensemble, whose imagery commemorates the first British Traveling Commissioner’s visit to a Yoruba king in 1899, impressed British Museum officials enough for them to acquire the sculpture for the permanent collection.

British colonial government officials, anthropologists, educators, and other foreign visitors documented Olowe’s sculptures in in situ photographs, published reports, and unpublished personal diaries. These materials can be examined in memorabilia boxes that were deposited at the Weston Library at Oxford University and in journals pertaining to African studies. Philip Allison, a British forester who regularly visited the Arinjale of Ise in the 1930s and admired Olowe’s art, is credited with identifying the sculptor by name.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, Variations on a Theme: Three Olumeye by Oluwe of Ise, Brochure, 2006.

Related Multimedia

Listen to a poem about Olowe of Ise.
Learn about Olowe of Ise (c. 1875–1938).

Web Resources

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