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Date: c. 1910 to c. 1938
Artist: Olowe of Ise, Nigerian, c. 1875 - 1938
Medium:Wood, pigment, and paint
Geographic Location: Nigeria, Effon-Alaiye
Dimensions: Overall: 19 1/2 x 10 1/4 x 14 1/2 in. (49.53 x 26.035 x 36.83 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc.
Object Number: 2004.16.McD

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This elaborate wooden bowl, called an olumeye, was used to serve kola nuts to the visitors of a Yoruba [YOUR-oo-buh] palace or other important residence. Carved by the master sculptor, Olowe of Ise, this olumeye displays several innovations in the tradition of olumeye carving which include bold geometric designs, painted features, the four kneeling females elevating the bowl form, and the four small birds carved in high relief on the bowl’s lid. With the exception of the lid of the bowl, the entire sculpture, including the head which moves freely in the “cage” of connected female forms on the sculpture’s base, is carved from a single block of wood.

 

 

  
Olumeye
 
All Yoruba [YOUR-oo-buh] sculptors knew how to carve olumeye. Most existing olumeyes include a kneeling female holding a bowl carved in the form of a chicken, an animal usually sacrificed to the deities and offered to guests in a spicy soup. This olumeye, however, substitutes a basket-shaped bowl for the chicken. In addition, four small birds appear on the lid and multiple kneeling female figures hold up the bowl form.
 
Olumeyes were used to hold kola nuts that were offered to guests in a domestic hospitality ritual or to deities in the context of religious worship. Because kola nuts contain caffeine, it is thought that they could enliven conversation between guest and host.  The word olumeye means “she who brings honor” and the female figure celebrates Yoruba beliefs about feminine beauty.
 
Listen to an audio clip discussing this olumeye.
 
Olowe of Ise
 
Olowe of Ise, is widely considered one of the most important, innovative, and skilled Yoruba sculptors. Born around 1875 in Effon-Alaiye, the center of Yoruba art and an important nineteenth-century royal town, Olowe became an artist in the court of Arinjale of Ise (a nobleman) who patronized him until Olowe’s death around 1938. In addition to olumeyes, Olowe carved a wide variety of objects for Arinjale of Ise, including drums, toys, and veranda posts.
In the 1930s, Philip Allison, an English traveller who regularly met with the Aranjale of Ise and who was an admirer of Olowe’s art, was the first European to identify Olowe by name in print.
 
Little is known of Olowe’s life except what is expressed in songs and stories passed down by those who knew him. While his family insists he was never formally trained, scholars suggest that after Olowe showed some initial talent, a master wood sculptor may have allowed him to apprentice the trade. Many accounts portray Olowe as a large personality.
 
In one oriki, or praise song, the skill of Olowe was commemorated:
 
Olowe…
Outstanding among his peers
One who carves the hard wood of the iroko tree
as though it were soft as a calabash.
One who achieves fame with the proceeds of his carving.
 
Listen to a reading of the praise song for Olowe of Ise.
 
Female Forms
 
Female forms on this olumeye express the Yoruba ideal of feminine beauty. The female figures are shown with elaborate hairstyles and long graceful features. One Ifa verse describes a kind of feminine ideal that Olowe may have been trying to express:
 
Whiteness is the beauty of the teeth;
Just as a long, graceful neck
And full, erect breasts make the beauty of women
 
For a Yoruba viewer, there are clues in the sculpture about the status of the female forms. The scars running down the back of the large kneeling woman could suggest, to a Yoruba viewer, that she is betrothed. 
 
African Artists
 
This olumeye has been traced back to its original artist, Olowe of Ise. However, the absence of a clear creator for most African art highlights the failure of many early collectors, historians, and ethnographers to inquire about the individual artists. This practice has been described by critics as attributing, or naming, work to a “communal other,” and it is problematic in that it diminishes the originality and creativity of the artist. In fact, most African artists and sculptors were well known within their communities and among their patrons.
 
Even though many African artists will never be known by name, art historians and researchers who recognize this gap in the study of African art are working to attribute African works with their original makers and ensure that work collected more recently is attributed appropriately.
 
The Yoruba Peoples
 
The Yoruba peoples are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, numbering nearly twenty-five million. They are made up of several different groups that speak the Yoruba language and inhabit large areas of Nigeria, the Republic of Benin, and Togo. All Yoruba trace their origins to the city of Ife in present-day Nigeria, which is the site where the world begins in the Yoruba creation story.
 
While the Yoruba economy is largely based on the agricultural production of such items as yams and cocoa, there is also a large and growing Yoruba presence in the populous cities of the region where more people are working as artisans and traders. Many Yoruba were relocated as slaves to Cuba and Brazil, where their influence on the language and culture is still apparent.
 
Yoruba-2011

 

 

 
Encouraging Dialogue
 
1. How are the figures positioned in this object? What might this indicate about their role and the purpose of this object?
 
2. A number of different patterns appear in this sculpture. How do these patterns contribute to the overallcomposition? How might looking at this sculpture in person be different from looking at a drawing or other two-dimensional representation of it?
 
3. The relationship between guest and host in the Yoruba culture is strictly defined by ritual and tradition. Discuss the relationship between guest and host in your homes or in the homes of your friends. How do you treat your guests differently than you treat your family members? What does this say about your family?
 
4. The female figures on this olumeye are idealized images of women for the Yoruba people. What are male and female standards of beauty in our society? Where do they come from and why are they important? How do they compare to the Yoruba standards of beauty depicted on this olumeye?
 
5. Much European or American art is categorized, in catalogues and art history texts, by its time period or artist while African art is frequently categorized by its region of origin or use. Why is this? Is the way our institutions categorize art important? Can these categories affect the way we think about art?
  
Making Connections
 

1. There are a number of other functional objects carved from wood in the DMA’s collection. This drum, from the Senufo peoples of Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Mali is played for a number of different reasons: calling people to ceremonies or providing a rhythm while young men hoe the fields. What might be some of the advantages of using wood to create sculpture?

 

2. This stool (kipona), from the Luba peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is, like the olumeye, carved in the image of a female. What is the function of the female figures on each of these carvings, and how is this function reflected by their pose or gesture?

 

3. This olumeye is part of a ritual which takes place between guests and hosts in the Yoruba culture. Find texts which describe the proper hospitality procedure in several different cultures. (The Odyssey, for example, describes this relationship in ancient Greece, but even more contemporary texts, like Emily Post’s Etiquette, might offer another perspective.) Write an essay comparing and contrasting the defined roles of guest and host in several different cultures.


4. Consider how you welcome guests in your own home and create a work of art which is meant to facilitate the welcoming of guests into your home.

 

 

Audio
 
Embedded Audio Player.
Listen to a sound clip from the audio tour.
 
Embedded Audio Player.
Listem to a poem about Olowe of Ise.
 
Books
 
Reference Books:
 
Abiodun, Rowland, Henry J. Drewal, and John Pemberton III, eds. The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.
 
Walker, Roslyn A. The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.
 
Walker, Roslyn A. Olowe of Ise: A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1998.
 
Walker, Roslyn A. Variations on a Theme. Brochure, Dallas Museum of Art, 2005
 
Books for Students:
 
Musgrove, Margaret. Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions. Illus. Leo and Diane Dillon. New York: Dial Books, 1976.
 
Olaleye, Isaac. The Distant Talking Drum: Poems from Nigeria. Paintings by Lessac Frane. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong, 1995.
 
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. A is for Africa. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1993.
 
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. Chidi Only Likes Blue: An African Book of Colors. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1997.
 
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. Ebele's Favorit: A Book of African Games. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd., 2001.
 
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. Emeka's Gift: An African Counting Story. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd., 1995.
 
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. Saying Goodbye: A Special Farewell to Mama Nkwelle. Brookfield, CT: The Brookfield Press, 2001.
 
Websites
 
On this page, you can find a description of the Yoruba people.
 

 

The Smithsonian's collection of African art 

This collection contains many pieces of Yoruba art, including other carvings by Olowe of Ise.

 

Map

 Yoruba-2011

 

 

Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood.  Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging.  In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy.  Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.

 

  1. Consider the Museum Setting

Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions.  Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture.  These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects.  Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.

 

  1. Provide Context and Narrative

When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used.  Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today.  Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way. 

 

Equally important to context is geography.  Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures.  A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes. 

 

  1. Use Inclusive Language

Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases.  By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider.  Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.”  Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion.  Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.

 

  1. Carefully Select Vocabulary

When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures.  Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity.  Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc.  This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions. 

Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).

 

  1. Avoid Decontextualizing Activities

Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context.  Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context.  (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit)  Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied. 

 

  1. Find Common Connections

Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires.  We all seek to understand the world and our place within it.  Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples.  Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own.  While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion.  Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate. 

 

  1. Consider the Study of Cultures

In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely.  Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement.  This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures.  Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others. 

 

FURTHER READING

 

Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.

 

Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006. 

 

Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.

 

Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World.  Information Age Publishing, 2009.

 

Prothero, Stephen.  God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.  Harper One, 2010.

 

Prothero, Stephen.  Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t.  San Francisco: Harper, 2007.

 

Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.

 

Said, Edward.  Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.

 

“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”