"Anonymous" has a Name

African artists were far from anonymous. Known to patrons and the people living in their communities and nearby towns, few are known today because early ethnographers failed to ask "Who made this?" Consequently, traditional African works of art are identified by an art style or by the name of the ethnic group that produced them.

The focus of this exhibition is on a Yoruba sculptor whose fame extended far beyond his hometown. Olowe of Ise (c. 1875-c. 1938) was born in the town of Efon-Alaiye, a major artistic center in Yorubaland. He spent most of his life in Ise, where he was initially engaged as a messenger at the court of the Arinjale (king) of Ise. Whether he apprenticed with someone to learn his craft or whether he was self-taught--born a master of composition and design (oju-ona)--as his descendants claim, is not known. His career as a sculptor, however, seems to have begun at Ise and his fame spread throughout eastern Yorubaland. The rulers and wealthy families of Ilesa, Ikere, Akure, Idanre, Ogbagi and other towns located within a 60-mile radius (96.75 kilometers) of Ise summoned Olowe to carve elaborately sculpted doors, veranda posts, and personal and ritual objects for them.

Olowe's art, if not his name, reached overseas in 1924 when a door and lintel ensemble he carved for the royal palace at Ikere was selected for the Nigerian Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, London. Today, many Western art historians and art collectors consider Olowe of Ise the most important Yoruba artist of the 20th century. Equally important, his skill as an artist was recognized by his own people.

This exhibition demonstrates Olowe of Ise's unique style of carving, extraordinary technical skill, and his personal interpretation of Yoruba art.