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Ise Palace Door (Ilekun aafin)
by Olowe of Ise
ca. 1904–1910
Promised Gift of Carol and Jerome Kenney, in celebration of the Museum's 150th anniversary
Episode 4 / 2020
First Look

One who carves the hard wood of the iroko tree as if it were as soft as a calabash...."

      —Yoruba praise poem (oriki)

This architectural landmark is by the sculptor Olowe of Ise, an acclaimed innovator of Yoruba visual expression. Its addition to The Met collection deepens the representation of a master whose influence was extolled in a Yoruba praise poem (oriki), recorded in 1988:

Handsome among his friends
Outstanding among his peers.
One who carves the hard wood of the iroko tree as if it were as soft as a calabash
One who achieves fame with the proceeds of his carving.

Olowe developed a signature carving style of deep, multi-layered figurative and abstract surfaces imbued with a sense of dynamic motion. His inventive carvings continue to inspire contemporary artists; one work was the springboard for architect David Adjaye's critically-acclaimed design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., inaugurated in 2016.

Born in the town of Efon-Alaiye, Olowe's career developed at the court of the Arinjale (king) of Ise. From 1904–1910, that leader charged him with embellishing the palace architecture, including the work you see here, the left side of the palace's main portal.

To reflect the Arinjale of Ise's ambitions in this commission, Olowe applied his distinctive approach at an impressive scale; it measures over seven feet tall. The subject depicted is the reception of two British colonial officials at the Ise palace. Captain W. G. Ambrose, is portrayed carried in a hammock, twisting his posture to gaze outward. His predecessor, Major W. R. Reeve-Tucker, the first traveling commissioner, is portrayed in profile on horseback in the third of six horizontal bands of processing porters, soldiers, and prisoners, accented in black and red pigments.

The palace portal's right panel, now in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, features the enthroned Arinjale of Ise receiving the delegation carved in the left panel. Though evoking this encounter on a two-dimensional surface, Olowe carved figures that break free of their ground to extend into the viewer's space. The frontal-facing figures rest their feet on the borders of each horizontal register, as if balancing as they lean toward us.

Admiration for Olowe's outstanding talents was such that his patrons came to include neighboring rulers of Ilesa, Ikere, Akure, Idanre, and Ogbogi. The Met collection includes a later work by Olowe, a figurative veranda post likely from one of those centers and originally positioned around the perimeter of an interior courtyard, the crowning element of which is closely-related to the piece that inspired Adjaye.

By 300 B.C., Yoruba civilization was the cradle of developed urban centers in what is today southwestern Nigeria. Its global impact on societies has been profound through the trans-Atlantic Diaspora. Artistic production in Yoruba centers encompassed media ranging from fired clay to glass beadwork and cast metal. Historical works such as this, carved in wood during the nineteenth century, have been vulnerable to the elements, fire, and displacement by successive generations. This palace portal is one of fewer than fifty of Olowe's creations that have survived.

Alisa LaGamma
Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator in Charge
African Art in The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing
Made possible by Bloomberg

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