African artists, anonymous, but recognisable!

Is the anonymity of African artists a myth?



African artists are rarely quoted or mentioned. What comes first is essentially the impact of the work of art itself. As the art, usually masks and sculptures, often relates to religion, what is important is the object and its role in ritual.

Our lack of knowledge about the artists can be explained by several factors: from a “local” point of view focusing on its origin, as in the previous paragraph, the object itself is more important than the person who made it, because it has a specific function for its owner; from a “scientific” point of view, seeing African art has not always helped us learn more about its artists, and so, in the words of Susan Vogel, “to contradict the stereotype of an art that emanated almost unconsciously from a collective culture, anonymous and devoid of history – a notion of sub-Saharan Africa that had left outside the history of art to which art museums and art history departments were dedicated” (1998, 44).

The silence surrounding artists who come from African cultures has often given free rein to western imagination, this largely being due to the historical context of the time. However, since the 1950s, researchers (such as historians, art historians, archaeologists, and sociologists) and institutions (museums, among others) have undertaken complementary research into these artists, in the hope of identifying the hand responsible for the object.

Some important studies

It is important to note that numerous studies have been conducted in much the same vein as research into the art history of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, i.e. determining a certain artist’s hand by analysing the stylistic elements of several works (as with the Master of Flémalle, or the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, and so on).

In Belgium, Frans Olbrechts (1899–1958), working in the Ethnography department of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren from 1939,
carried out comparative research into the form of objects produced by the Luba people and was able to identify the hand of a specific artist, the Master of Buli.


(1) Cover of a book by Frans Olbrechts, “Plastiek van Kongo”, 1946
(2) Portrait of Frans Olbrechts by Jean Van Noten (1903–1982), (charcoal on paper, 80 x 130 cm) Ethnographic Museum, Antwerp
(3) Bowl bearer, Luba peoples, DR Congo
(4) Caryatid stool, Luba peoples, DR Congo

As for studies of objects originating in Nigeria, major advances have occurred in this domain with the help of the involvement of scientists from the Yoruba community, such as Rowland Abiodun.

Certain artists have been identified, notably Olowe of Ise (c. 1875–c. 1938):
American researcher Roslyn A. Walker (1) has identified around fifty objects made by his hand.


(1) Roslyn A. Walker, Museum curator at the Smithsonian and expert in Nigerian art (Photo: Smithsonian National Museum of African Art)
(2) Olowe of Ise (c. 1875–c. 1938) – (1) Roslyn Walker
(3) Bowl with figures, Yoruba peoples, early 20th century. The Smithsonian National Museum of African History – Bowl with figures, c. 1925, Yoruba peoples. Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
(4) Palace door of the Ogoga of Ikere, installed in the Nigerian Pavilion (Wembley, 1924 )
(5) British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, 1924 (Photo: C.T. Lawrence. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Library and Records Department, London)
(6) Palace door of the Ogoga of Ikere, British Museum  Registration numberAf1979,01.4546.c

How can an artist be identified?

Researchers focus on objects showing similarities in their shape and style. Using these observations as a starting point, and building up a corpus, it is possible to attribute works to a specific artist, whose name is sometimes known (such as Olowe of Ise). In other cases, the title “master of …” (usually the name of the village where the art originates) is given instead.

To give an example of this process, this remarkable cup decorated with female figures was analysed within the context of the body of works by the Yoruba artist Olowe of Ise, carefully assembled by Roslyn A. Walker.

Similarities were found on the basis of various structural characteristics, and so it was possible to conclude that this important work of art could be attributed to this particular artist, a major figure in the history of traditional African art.


Bowl with Olowe of Ise figures


Located in the West, but are also present in Togo and Benin

This prestigious (precious) bowl originally contained kola nuts, used in a traditional gesture of hospitality, presented to guests and offered to deities during rituals.
Several elements of our sculpture (hairstyle, scarifications…) can be found in the works of Olowe of Ise, but it is not certain proof of his work.

Our subject is organized into three parts:

• First, we have the ovoid bowl with its decorative, zoomorphic top (two facing birds), held by two kneeling women with elevated hairstyles.

• Under the bowl, two pairs of caryatid women (two standing and two kneeling, with one holding her breasts).

• And finally, the pedestal is decorated with twelve faces (some of them with beards), and a male head laid down in the middle. The women holding the bowl display scarifications on their chest, neck and back. Caryatids refer to the important role of women in the Yoruba society.

Yoruba people and culture

The Yoruba people are the most numerically significant ethnic group in Nigeria. They are essentially located in the West, but are also present in Togo and Benin. The physical identification mark of the Yoruba culture is three scored lines on the cheeks, as we can see on their anthropomorphic figures.

Ife, in southwestern Nigeria, is the spiritual homeland and oldest town of the Yoruba people, beginning about A.D. 1000. Ife was an important cultural and artistic centre.

Magnificent pieces of art were created there, like heads in clay and in bronze, studied by Frank Willet (1925-2006).

Olowe of Ise (c. 1875-1938), Yoruba Artist

The sculptor Olowe of Ise was – and is still – a well-known artist in Yorubaland. Since the Second World War, his name is also known in the Occidental world of African Art collections. William Fagg was informed of the name of the artist by Philip A. Allison, a British forester stationed in Nigeria.

Olowe of Ise was born circa 1875 in Efon-Alaiye, a town in eastern Yorubaland, one of the most important centres of Yoruba sculpture. Olowe moved to Ise at a young age. He moved there to serve the Arinjale (king) as a court messenger. The details of his apprenticeship are not known but the features of his sculptures refer to the Yoruba artistic canon.

According to the Catalogue raisonné created by R. A. Walker in 1998, Olowe of Ise produced fifty-three sculptures.

Comparative study with the Olowe of Ise corpus

Roselyn A. Walker studied 45 objects in the Olowe of Ise corpus (based on 53 pieces).
Different kind of objects are represented: panels, veranda posts, bowl with figure(s), drums.

R. Walker identified stylistic elements of Olowe’s sculpture:

• Elongated, Angular forms carved in exceedingly high relief,
• Illusion of movement,
• Use of colourful pigments.

About the female figures:
• Elongated neck,
• Crested hair style,
• Dorsal scarification,
• The manner in which female kneels with her buttocks resting on her heels, and the zig zag shape of thighs, legs and feet.
• As regards the hair style, some of the female figures have the irun agogo style.

Bowl with figures compared to
Olowe of Ise stylistic characteristics

Dorsal Scarifications

Non-fixed human head in the « cage » of caryatids


Regarding the bowl with figure, number 27 of the corpus –Courtesy of the Walt Disney & Tishman African Art Collection – presents some similarities with our subject: a bearded human head is carved within the « cage » formed by the female caryatids.
Possibilities of moving the head in this place but not of moving it from this « cage ».

Irun agogo hairstyle and zig zag of thighs, legs and feet


After comparison between the corpus and our bowl, different elements demonstrate the hand of Olowe of Ise: the morphological patterns and standing position of the female figure; the non-fixed and trapped human head in the « cage » of caryatids.


Former collection Jo and Sol Levitt, New York

Editor in chief & Expert


Coryse Mwape Dolin
Art Historian, African Arts


Marie-Louis Bastin.- Introduction aux Arts d’Afrique Noire. Arnouville, Arts d’Afrique Noire, 1984. p. 179-195.
Bernard de Grunne (dir.)– Masterhands. Mains de maîtres. Bruxelles, Espace BBl, 2001.
William Fagg.- One Hundred Notes on Nigerian Art from Christie’s Catalogues 1974-1990, Quaderni Poro 7, 1991.
Susan Kolman, Catherine Elliott.-
Découverte d’un rare bol yourte d’Olowe d’iSe d’une grande importance, Tribal Arts 7 (summer) 2004 : 120-123.
Constantin Petridis (ed.)Frans M. Olbrechts (1899-1958). In search of Art in Africa. Anvers, Antwerp Ethnographic Museum, 2001.
Susan Vogel.- Known artists but anonymous works. Fieldwork and art history, African Arts 1998, 32 (1) : 40-55, 93-94.
Roslyn Adele Walker.- Olowe of Ise, « Anonymous » has a name, African Arts 1998 : 38-47, 90.
Roslyn A. Walker.Olowe of Ise: A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings. Washington D.C., 1998.


Maître de Buli et Frans Olbrechts

Lynn Thornton.- Les Africanistes, peintres voyageurs : 1860-1960. ACR Editions, 2000. p. 30
Bernard de Grunne (dir.)– Masterhands. Mains de maîtres. Bruxelles, Espace BBl, 2001p. 212

Yoruba : Olowe of Ise

The Smithsonian, National Museum of African History