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Yoruba Carvers [I]
This essay tries to show different kinds of artists and their historic places. It focusses on the survival of the traditional pattern and renewal of Yoruba culture in the 1950's. This began with an introduction into the religious dimension of the Yoruba world, and continues with the master carvers. The first is Olowe of Ise, the most famous carver of the 20th century, an artist well known beyond the confines of Nigeria. Next is Areogun/Arowogun of Osi Ilorin, a traditional artist who worked for the public and for kings. As a link between traditional world and early tourist art, we look at works of Thomas Ona Odulate of Ijebu Ode. In the 1950's, then, I give an overview of the artist that Father Kevin Caroll supported. Finally, I focus my interest on contemporary traditional carvers like Buraimoh Gbandamosi and Kasali Akangbe.
Keeping the cultural heritage is the central core in the text. In the words of Ulli Beier, the art object is not that important, but the people that live the ceremonies and the rites are what should have continuity. Masks for the dance are made for every festival again, to renew their powers. So if an object is gone because of time or insects, it is a loss for everyone, especially the art world. But something new will replace it.
Every piece of art is a work of an artist; that's as true in Africa as it is elsewhere. But African art is a special case. In European society the work of a known artist has great value. African art is always religous art. This means that every object has significance in the Yoruba religious world. In European cultures the church has often been a sponsor for artists. Creativity came out of deeply felt religion and the need to make a visible portrait to praise. An anonymous idealised god needs to be reachable by humans, so a figure of a holy person was always a direct transmitter to the elder god. Similarly, in the Yoruba context the carving tradition has its origin in the religious world. The wise men and the leaders needed to picture what they could be or, at least, what they believed. Thus, the cores of artistic movements have their origin in visualising religious aims.
There are additional reasons why art is created. For example, a king could use it to documentate his might and influence. Nowadays, much art is created for art itself (l’art pour l’art). The creators of what we call African art were mostly craftsmen. They were wood carvers because their fathers were and it was their heritage (1). It is often thought that they worked anonymously in Yoruba society. But the fact is that the talented craftsmen were seen and saw themselves as artists. That was the beginning of treating their work with respect. Those who became famous for their work were given the job of creating for the kings and leaders.
Talking about carvers leads us to a dilemma: how can we discuss a carver whose identity is not known? With the Yoruba, we use a convention that also exists in European art: we name unknown artists after their most famous works, e.g. Master of the Owu Shango Shrine, to name one famous sculptor (2). From the field researches in the early 1950´s by W. Fagg we know a lot about the real names of the artists around 1900. The Yoruba have no written documentation of them, but in the carving schools the names of the artists were mostly known and great popular carvers and their work were in the memories of the people (3).
The names of the artists were often known to the patrons and people who saw the works, but the ethnographers usually didn’t ask who did each piece of work. There is always a connection between the artist and the public, foring him to change the concepts of his artworks (ise-ona) (4). For that reason, it's possible to attempt to reconstruct some carving traditions. Also, around 1900 some carvers began to sign their work (with abstract geometric patterns).
To lead into the subject, I point out that although the full complexity of the artist in the Yoruba culture can't be shown here, I will try to bring some light into the topic. I want to show a parallel between the past tradition and the present. I will try to make an overview with a few selected known artists, so that a little of the process of keeping tradition can be visualised. According to U. Beier, by the 1960s the traditional culture was dead (5). So it needed an “act of creation”, a renewing of the past influenced with the reality. This will be shown later in the text in the example of a contemporary artist. In order to make a scheme and to install a timeline I will divide the carvers into three sections: traditional artists up to 1940, modern artists from 1940-1960, and finally, contemporary artists from 1960-1980.
The Traditional Artists (Prior to1940)
There are many known Yoruba artists. The most famous is Olowe of Ise, a master carver (1875-1938). He became internationally popular through his works, especially the famous Ikere door.
Works by Olowe of Ise. A bowl, probably his most famous work (left); Ikere door (right)
Much has been written about this artist. Through the documentation of Philip Allison and William Fagg the artistic life of Olowe of Ise can nearly be reconstructed. He was born in Efon-Alaye (6), but he worked and spent his time mostly in Ise. There is, unfortunately, nothing known about to whom he was apprenticed or who was his artistic mentor. Traditionally, Yoruba carvers learn their craft in an apprentice system, but the influence of Olowe's master can’t be reconstructed. We know that he worked for many clients, including the king and other rulers in the countryside of Ise. We know that Arinjale of Ise was his first patron, and had Olowe carve veranda posts and doors for his palace. One of his most famous works, and through which he became famous beyond Nigeria, was the door that he carved for the Ogoga of Ikere.
His work was selected to be presented on the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, London on the Nigerian pavilion. According to Major C.T.Lawrence the piece was “the finest piece of West African carving that has ever reached England”. So they decided to buy the piece. But the Ogaga of Ikere don’t want to sell it. They found a compromise, giving him an English royal throne in exchange for that door, and Olowe of Ise carved a new door for the palace for Ogaga of Ikere.
Olowe of Ise has an individual style. He created figures that have movement and show activity. In his reliefs, like doors or plaques, he carved figures in a high relief that stand out and cast shadows (7).
Door by Olowe of Ise (detail)
He creates the illusion of movement. More than 15 apprentices helped him with his large commission. But the master himself worked mostly alone in a separate room. He had no students that followed him to continue his style. There is a discussion that he signed his work with an Eshu face, that normally appears on a Opon Ifa (Ifa tray).
Two doors by Olowe of Ise, showing the Ifa trays with Eshu faces
In my eyes, this is only a common pattern he is using in his works. Not all of his works have this face as a signature (8). Dating the wood by IR spectroscopy would help to resolve this issue (9). Perhaps the later works (after 1910) have this signature and the earlier ones do not. At the border of the 19th and 20th centuries, the artists began to sign their works as a kind of fashion.
Another famous artist during Olowe of Ise's lifetime was Areogun/Arowogun of Osi Ilorin (1880-1954).
He was from the town of Osi Ilorin, in the Northern Ekiti region. His teacher was Bamagbose (died 1920), one of the ancient master carvers, who had a strong influence on him. Areogun created a style, transforming him into an individual artist.
Epa masks by Areogun. The photograph on the right was made in the field.
He carved in a traditional manner, but the sensitivity of the forms is based on great sculptural feeling. A relatively flat relief and smooth forms is typical of his work.
His son, Bandele, also became famous (more about him later). He worked on a project that was initiated by Father Kevin Carrol, to create new modern Christian art in Nigeria (10). Often we find works of Areogun signed with a triangle on the bottom. As with Olowe of Ise, Areogun began to sign his work relatively late, probably in the early 1920s. This needs further research and a discussion about it would be too long for this article.
With the permission of Tribal Art Forum
1. Himmelheber H.: Negerkünstler, Stuttgart 1935, p.15
2. Chemeche G.: Ibedji- The Cult of Yoruba Twins, p. 236-244
3. Homberger L. ( Hrsg.): Yoruba , Kunst und Ästhetik in Nigeria, p.39, for Olowe
4. ibid., p.38, line 47-58
5. Beier U.: Art in Nigeria 1960. Cambridge University, 1960, p.6. line 16-20
6. Pemberton J.: The Yoruba Artist, Smithsonian Institution, 1994, p.102
7. ibid., p.91, line 21-28
8. Homberger L., op. cit. , p.42
9. Matthaes G.: Illustriertes Handbuch des Kunstsammlers zur Echtheitserkennung von Antiquitäten, Band 3, Museo del Collezionista d'arte, Milan 2002 , p.123
10. Willett F.: African Art, London 1993, p.229
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