ca. 1875-ca. 1938
Olowe of Ise was born about 1875 in Efon-Alaiye, a town in eastern Yorubaland that was once a kingdom and one of the most important centers of Yoruba carving. Olowe moved to Ise at a young age to serve the Arinjale (king) as a court messenger. The details of his early life and training in sculpture are not known. His descendants claim he was self-taught, but it is likely that he learned the Yoruba canon and perfected his carving skills during an apprenticeship. Eventually he became a master artist at the Arinjale's palace, and as his fame grew, other Yoruba kings and wealthy families commissioned him to carve architectural sculptures, masks, drums and other objects for their palaces.
Olowe probably carved this lidded bowl with figures for a king or other person of high social status or for a shrine. Among the Yoruba such elaborately carved and decorated bowls were prestige objects used to offer kola nuts to guests or to deities during religious worship.
That Olowe was an innovative and virtuosic, even daring, artist is demonstrated in this sculpture. The image of four dancing girls on the lid, for example, is the first such representation in Yoruba art. Olowe's choice of dancers raises questions about his inspiration. Had he seen a picture of the Three Graces of ancient Greece or, as reproduced in "Notre colonie: Le Congo Belge" (1909: 55), a photograph of grass-skirted females similarly posed in a circle? Olowe also depicted nude males, one of whom is kneeling, on this bowl. Such renderings are exceptional and challenge the Yoruba canon. Finally, except for the lid, the entire sculpture, including the bearded head shown resting on the base, was carved from a single piece of wood. While the head can be moved within the "cage" formed by the male and female figures, it cannot be removed.
The bowl is believed to be a later version of a bowl in the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection which was collected at the turn of the century. Although similar in design and decoration, this later work is a more dynamic sculpture.