Important bowl with Olowe of Ise figures, Nigeria, early 20th Century (pre-1938)

Yoruba people and culture


Bowl with Olowe of Ise figures


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

The Yoruba people are the 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).

Description of our object

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.

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.

Our 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.
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.
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.