An Olumeye for Ritual Hospitality
The Yoruba have traditionally offered kola nuts to guests in a domestic hospitality ritual or to the deities in the context of religious worship. While gourd containers served these purposes for most people, honored visitors to the palace or other prestigious residences were served from elaborately decorated wooden bowls. The containers are called olumeye in reference to the kneeling female figure holding the bowl. The word means “she who brings honor,” and the figure celebrates Yoruba aesthetic ideals of feminine beauty.
Olumeye sculptures are numerous because they were part of the repertoire of Yoruba sculptors. Sculptors of most of the extant olumeye carved the lidded bowl in the form of a cock, an animal that is usually sacrificed to the deities (orisha) and offered to guests in a spicy soup. The Dallas olumeye seems to be an innovation because the lidded bowl is just that—made prominent only by giving it a dome-shaped lid and elevating it on the upraised hands of female figures kneeling along the edge of the base. The sculpture is boldly decorated with zigzags, diamonds, rectangles, and other geometric designs. The lid, which was carved separately, is decorated with a group of birds carved in high relief pecking at a mound of feed. The sculpture is painted. But, the artist’s masterstroke is the freestanding bearded head he carved within the “cage” formed by the kneeling figures around the base. The head can be moved about the cage but it cannot be removed, indicating that it was carved from within the cage.
Unlike most works of art by African tradition-based artists, the creator of this olumeye is known by name: Olowe of Ise. In fact, African artists were not anonymous but were known to their patrons and the people living in their communities. Their names may not have been collected for various reasons, but a major question that early ethnographers and collectors failed to ask is, “Who made this?”
Olowe was indeed an innovator. No other Yoruba artists of his time carved sculptures in exceedingly high relief, created the illusion of movement in his figures, and painted them. He seems to have revisited his own creations with the outcome of more complex versions of the theme. This olumeye, for example, is one of three that he is known to have carved. The smallest and least complex of the group, the Museum’s olumeye may be the first one he carved.
In 1924, a door that Olowe had carved for the palace of the Ogoga of Ikere was included in the British Empire Exhibition in England. The British Museum officials were so impressed with the door that they arranged to acquire it for the British Museum. Works by Olowe had already reached England earlier in the century. (Many sculptures by Olowe have been acquired since 1925 by museums and private collectors in Europe, America, and Australia.) The Dallas olumeye was brought to England by Edwin Holland, a telegraphist who was employed by the British Colonial government in Lagos. How Holland obtained the olumeye is not known, but one can imagine him visiting the royal owner of the sculpture and expressing his admiration of it. The king could have given the bowl to Holland. After all, Olowe was still alive in 1919 and could carve another one. That is what happened in 1925 when he replaced the door that had remained in England after the British Empire Exhibition.
Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 90-91.