A Nobel Prize-winner on his African Art collection

Image courtesy of the Financial Times.

In their ongoing series ‘How to spend it‘, the Financial Times just interviewed Nobel Prize winning author Wole Soyinka about his African Art collection; you can find the interview here. Soyinka has been collecting art of the Yoruba for the last 60 years. Yoruba himself, the connection with some of the works in his collection is very personal, nonetheless some of his statements will feel very familiar to the Western collector as well.

There’s another piece which I generally call “old man serenity” or “old avatar with the enigmatic smile”. And what is remarkable about this piece is that from the moment I set eyes on it, I said to myself, “This has to be part of my existence.” And it goes with me everywhere, when possible.

I’ve spent time in prison in Nigeria, as a guest of the state, for my political beliefs, and been cut off from my sculptures. I’d written poems about them, so they were with me in a sense. But, of course, there’s nothing to beat the palpable presence of them, when you can actually walk from one to one. You can touch them, rearrange them, and the process of rearranging the pieces constitutes a part of the aesthetic pleasure.

Soyinka also talks about the feelings about his collection by his fellow countrymen..

Two pieces I particularly loved were stolen. These were a monkey, with an unbelievable phallus, and the other a female caryatid, which I used to place on either side of the front door, like gods of the house. People would pass through the field of force, as I used to call it, and I think some Christian fundamentalists stole these pieces and destroyed them. This was many years ago. They were very sizeable pieces and there is no trace of them. I think some people were just sufficiently offended by those pieces as to steal them and destroy them. When I was at the university of Ife in Nigeria, it was under siege by some Muslim and Christian fundamentalists. They despised representations of African spirituality and these sculptures vanished.

Not unimportant to read such sad recollections in the light of the ongoing nuance-lacking debates about restitution of African’s cultural heritage.


The African art that inspired the new African American History Museum’s building

The African American History Museum cost $540 million to construct and took a little more than four years to complete. Sixty percent of the building is underground with four concourses below ground and four floors above the first level main entrance. The structure has exhibition galleries, an education center, theater, auditorium, café, store and offices. Image courtesy of Alan Karchmer.
The African American History Museum. Image courtesy of Alan Karchmer.

Here’s a fun fact about the new African American History Museum in Washington D.C.: the specific pagoda-like form was inspired by the top element of a Yoruba veranda post ! The building’s architect, David Adjaye, spotted the post (made by the famous sculptor Olowe of Ise) in an overlooked corner of the Museum Five Continents in Munich when designing the museum.


In fact, the Munich museum owns two posts by Olowe, one now is on long term loan to the African American History Museum, while the other remains on display in Munich. Both were carved circa 1930 and formerly in the residence of the Ojomu of Obaji in Akoko – before being collected by Gerd Stoll (from whose collection the museum acquired them).

A 1930s wooden sculpture by Nigerian artist Olowe of Ise wears a crown, on which the museum’s design is based, in the culture galleries. Image courtesy of Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post.
Image courtesy of Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post.


In this article in the Washington Post, David Adjaye, the sought-after British architect and son of Ghanaian diplomats, said he wanted to provide a “punch” at the end of the “row of palaces,” as he referred to the other museums at Washington DC’s National Mall. And the architecture needed to “speak the story of the museum, the origins in Africa,” he said, and not be another “stone box with things in it.” Adjaye recalls coming across a wooden sculpture of a man wearing a crown by the early-20th-century Yoruban artist Olowe of Ise. Adjaye had seen similar forms in Benin, in fragments of doors and posts and pillars. But the connection to the Yoruba, one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, was more meaningful. A 2015 Oxford University study found the majority of African Americans and modern-day Yoruba people in West Africa have a similar ancestry, confirming that the region was a major source of African slaves. He sent an image of the sculpture to his collaborators. No other ideas were considered. “I think all of us were captured by it,” said Hal Davis of SmithGroupJJR. Surely it must be the only building in the world that is inspired by African art !

ps in several online articles this segment erroneously is described as a ‘crown’, surely it was merely a structural element to connect the figure with the veranda’s roof – as you can see on the field-photo below. However, I do recall the number ‘3’ has some symbolic meaning among the Yoruba, but I don’t have the time to dive into my books right now.

In situ photo of a Yoruba veranda post by Olowe of Ise - published in Walker (Roslyn Adele), "Olówè of Isè. A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings", National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1998.
In situ photo of the Munich Yoruba veranda post by Olowe of Ise – published in Walker (Roslyn Adele), “Olówè of Isè. A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings”, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1998.

Field-photo of the day: a messenger of the Shaki king (1959)

Kings's messenger, "are." Shaki. Portrait photographed by William Fagg in 1959.
Kings’s messenger, “are”. Shaki. Photo by William Fagg, 1959.

William Fagg took the above portrait in Shaki, the most Northern city of the Yoruba region, in 1959. Along with Ife, Oshogbo and Ede, Shaki is one of the oldest Yoruba settlements, having been founded in the 15th century by the legendary Yoruba king Ofiran. Next to the clear presence of the three typical lineage scarifications (ila) on the man’s cheeks, is the special hair-do, made up of two rising hair braids connected at the top. Among the Yoruba, persons with privileged roles, such as a king’s messenger (are or ilari) had their heads shaved. The remaining hair was fashioned in a distinctive way in order to identify the person’s powerful position.

One of my favorite pair of ere ibeji in the Lempertz sale earlier this week was a pair originating from Shaki. As the messenger on the field-photo above, the coiffure consists of two tall plaits joined at the tips. This hairstyle thus did not spring from the artist’s imagination, but was a realistic representation of an existing hairdo.

A pair of female ere ibeji. Shaki, Nigeria. Height: 29 cm. Image courtesy of Lempertz.
A pair of female ere ibeji. Shaki, Nigeria. Height: 29 cm. Image courtesy of Lempertz.

Note how the hair is dyed blue. The Yoruba considered blue a ‘cool’ color, thus here acting symbolically to ‘cool’ the head (and so, too the mind and temper) of the ibeji. The light-blue indigo, initially used on the figure’s coiffure, however, inevitably dulled over time, and often only traces remained visible. A more effective alternative to indigo came in the middle of the 19th century, namely Reckitt’s Blue. This was a domestic bleaching agent containing ultramarine, originally manufactured by Reckitt & Sons in England from 1840, and primarily sold as a textile whitener – although the Yoruba thus found a better use for it.

Image courtesy of the National Museum of Australia - photo by Kipley Nink.
Image courtesy of the National Museum of Australia – photo by Kipley Nink.



UPDATE: Elio Revera send me the below field-photo of two royal messengers in Ilari (Oyo), taken by Pierre Verger around 1950.

Yoruba Royal Messengers Oyo Pierre Verger

Auctions Objects

Object of the day: a talking drum of the Yoruba

Image courtesy of Dorotheum.
Image courtesy of Dorotheum.

An object you don’t often come across at auction, a talking drum from the Yoruba. The above example was acquired in the palace of the Oba of Oyo in the early 1960s and will be sold by Dorotheum next month; more info here.

Yoruba drum player. Published in: Rivallain (J.) & Iroko (F. A.), Yoruba: masques et rituels africains, Paris, 2000: p. 91.
Yoruba drum player. Published in: Rivallain (J.) & Iroko (F. A.), Yoruba: masques et rituels africains, Paris, 2000: p. 91.

In case you were wondering how they sound… (trust me, you’ll be amazed by the sound they can produce)

Yoruba agere ifa featuring a drum player. Height: 18,5 cm. Collected by Leo Frobenius in 1912. Image courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin, Germany (III C 27097).
Yoruba agere ifa featuring a drum player. Height: 18,5 cm. Collected by Leo Frobenius in 1912.
Image courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin, Germany (III C 27097).
Objects Research

Thomas Ona, a short biography of a Yoruba carver (ca. 1900–52)

Thomas Ona (1938). Photo source unknown to me so any additional information is very welcome.
Thomas Ona (1938). Photo source unknown to me so any additional information is very welcome.

As you may have noticed the next Lempertz sale in Brussels (info) features multiple figures carved by Thomas Ona (see below). Unfortunately they forgot to include a biography, so let me do that in their place here. From an article on Kunstpedia, written by David Zemanek, we learn:

When Uli Beier arrived in Nigeria there was more than just a dying of the Nigerian culture. Artists were faced with fewer commissions from the shrines and from private people for religious objects. So, many of them began to produce for the colonial tourism or they worked for the churches. A famous example of a great carver was Thomas Ona Odulate of Ijebu Ode, who worked from the turn of the century into the the late fifties. He first worked at Ijebu Ode, later in Lagos, where he was well known for his gently satirical carvings of colonial administrators, lawyers, missionaries made as souvenirs for the English.

Two years after the publication of this article, William Ayodele Odulate (one of the children of Thomas Ona) made a very interesting comment with some corrections and additions on the Kunstpedia website.

Thomas Onajeje Odulate was my father. I am standing right beside him. Picture taken at Tokunbo Street, Lagos. I am the only surviving child of his five children. He worked in Ikorodu (not Ijebu-Ode) and Lagos. He belonged to the ruling Mosene family of Ikorodu, Lagos State. He died in November 1952 and is buried in front of the Mosene compound, Ikorodu.

We learn more here on the website of the Hearst Museum of Anthropology:

After moving to Lagos, Ona produced great quantities of novel woodcarvings depicting both colonials and Yoruba. Among the former were administrators, soldiers, lawyers, doctors, butchers, missionaries, polo players, married couples, even Queen Victoria. The Yoruba included both traditional roles and new, colonial occupations: mothers and children, masked dancers, kings and messengers, hunters, policemen, and postmen. Almost all were sold to the British; while some were commissioned, most were made in advance and then marketed.

While Ona’s figures are pioneering in subject matter, they are traditional in style. They follow usual Yoruba proportions, with a large head equal in size to the torso and legs. Ona used the traditional Yoruba carving tools of adze and knife. He painted the figures in red and black ink, white shoe polish, leaving the natural tan of the wood. However, unlike traditional Yoruba sculpture, which is usually carved out of single piece of wood, many of Ona’s carvings have separate parts, such as hats, guns, books, mallets, or umbrellas. And like most tourist arts, Ona’s sculpture often exists in multiple, similar versions. While they seem to be satirical or caricatures, and have been so identified, Ona told Bascom that his works simply showed how he viewed the world around him.

I could trace circa hundred works by his hand, making him the most prolific African sculptor of the first half of the twentieth century. For further reading:

– Nigeria: a quarterly magazine of general interest, June 1938, 14, p.138
– William Bascom, Modern African figurines: satirical or just stylistic?, Lore, 1957, 7(4), cover, pp.118-126

Image courtesy of Lempertz.
Image courtesy of Lempertz.

Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art (Kean University, 2008)

Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art

Another freely available exhibition catalogue, Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art – selections from the Newark Museum Collection is a 44-page book which accompanied the exhibition with the same name at Kean University in 2012. Besides 22 objects, it contains a very interesting essay by Dr. Babatunde Lawal, one of the foremost experts on Yoruba art. This exhibition was based on the show Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art: Featuring the Bernard and Patricia Wagner Collection, which was jointly organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, and The Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey, in 2007 and co-curated by Carol Thompson and Christa Clarke. Download the catalogue here (1,4 MB).


Yoruba ibori

Image: BC.
Image: BC.

The ibori (sometimes ipori or iponri) symbolizes the ‘inner head’, that is the individual’s personal destiny (ori means head). According to the Yoruba version of the creation, before a human being is born Obatala models his or her body from clay and the sky god Olorun blows vital force into it. The heads however are made by Ajala, the potter from orun (‘the other world’). Everybody can choose his own ‘inner head’. Ajala is a careless potter, and sometimes the heads are underbaked or overbaked. An individual who unwittingly chooses a badly made ‘inner head’ starts life with a serious and lasting handicap. The quality of the chosen head determines a person’s destiny during his life on earth.

The ipori is the symbol of a person’s spiritual essence and individuality. It consists of a conical leather pouch into which the Ifa priest pours dry sand on which he has previously imprinted the Ifa formula for ori. Additionally, the container is packed with ingredients associated with one’s ancestors, gods, and the restrictions or taboos (ewo) one must abide by. It thus contains everything essential to a person’s life. After special prayers and songs, the pouch is sewn up and sealed; it is then decorated with rows of caurie shells. Altogether it forms an abstract human form with a stylized head or conical form to convey something of the inner or spiritual life of individuals. The package of the above example is surmounted by a stylized human head with the tall-crested agogo hairstyle, button eyes and small round ears. The ibori are kept in an ile ori or ‘house of the head’. Such an ile ori is a container with a lid, made of cloth and leather and covered with caurie shells.

The Amsterdam auction house De Zwaan is offering three ibori in their next sale on 4 November – see below. More info here (with a very friendly estimate of € 150 – 300, and selling for € 260).

Three Yoruba ibori - heights 13, 13,5 & 12 cm.
Three Yoruba ibori – heights 13, 13,5 & 12 cm. Image courtesy of De Zwaan.

Object of the day: a Yoruba head from the Ortiz collection

"Bulgy Eyes" (head) Bronze. H: 26.2 cm.  Thickness of bronze: 1-2.5 mm. Found in Benin City, Yoruba Culture. Probably 16th century. Ex  Webster 6366; Ex collection Lt.  Gen. Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, DCL., FRS., FSA, Farnham, Dorset. Image courtesy of George Ortiz Collection.
“Bulgy Eyes” (head). Bronze. H: 26.2 cm. Found in Benin City, Yoruba Culture. Probably 16th century. Ex Webster 6366; Ex collection Lt. Gen. Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. Image courtesy of George Ortiz Collection.

In my personal top 10 of African art, is this bronze head from the George Ortiz collection. I first saw it in Paris in 2010 during the exhibition about the film by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, Les statues meurent aussi ; the force it radiated was incredible. Perhaps, on a subconscious level, there’s also a degree of identification since I was nicknamed ‘bulgy eyes’ as a child 🙂

The George Ortiz collection can be consulted online here. The main focus is ancient Greek art, but there are some splendid examples of African and Oceanic art too. To see this head in a 3-D format, click here.

This head was found during the British Benin punitive expedition in February 1897 in Benin City. Made in the Yoruba tradition: though possibly in Ijebu it could very well have been made by a Yoruba artist in Benin City and it is even conceivable that “Bulgy Eyes” could be a late Ife work. In art it would seem by observation of their respective works that the Yoruba must have had strong artistic ties and a “close on-going relationship with Benin”.

This bronze head bears tribal markings above the eyes and on the forehead. On either side of the Bini-like ears hang coral pendants with small crotals or nuts at their end. On the back of the head is something of indeterminate nature, either a rattle, bell or large nut. The hair and beard represented by cross-hatching which extends also above the upper lip.

With its immense bulging eyes and wide, hooked nose with flat nostrils, this head is one of the most extraordinary expressions of African art. We see in it the essence of Nature’s savagery and the “bulging eyes represent an extreme of the Oshugbo convention suggesting spiritual force and presence.”

It may have been placed on a royal ancestral altar, found in what Pitt Rivers called “Ju-Ju” houses and would have been used in spirit cult. It could have been surmounted with a headdress, as Drewal suggests. It is unlikely that it served to hold an elephant tusk as some of the tall and heavy Benin heads of later periods did. By its mystical strength, we feel that this unique head is a universal work of art.

Ijebu head Ortiz


For a short interview with George Ortiz, click here.

How does ethnography fit this collection?

Because some of it is very powerful, very pure or very beautiful sculpture, or both, often with a strong inner content. I have always liked African sculpture when it is genuine, which means unadulterated by European contact. And the Africans as no other peoples have been able to capture and express the savagery of nature in some of their sculptures, for nature is not burdened with considerations of morality or justice, it just is. See for example the Nok head, with its powerful psychic content, and “Bulgy eyes”, with its mystical strength.


Auction review: Sotheby’s Paris – June 18, 2013 – Part 2

Though not as dramatic as the sale of the Corlay collection (reviewed here), the second part of the last Sotheby’s Paris auction (18/06/13), with only just more than half of the African lots sold (29 / 56), wasn’t a big success either. 27 lots remained unsold (most notably the Sapi headSenufo couple and Yoruba bowlbearer). Including the premium, 10 objects sold under the estimate (for example the hide Lega mask), 14 within the estimate (for example the golden Baule menage à trois, which had higher expectations) and 5 above the estimate, with special mention to the Crowninshield Baule mask. Estimated at € 120-180K, it sold for € 781K to a telephone bidder in the US. Heavily cleaned and stripped from a fiber beard, it corresponds with a certain modernistic aesthetic which I personally don’t like at all, but which is very popular among many collectors (as proven by its price).

The most important work in the sale was a Songye headrest from the Jean H.W. Verschure collection collected F. Vandevelde before 1891. It didn’t fail to impress and quadrupled its estimate (€ 120-180K), selling for € 505K. The anthropomorphic neckrest did not show much use, but with its exceptional early provenance and counterpart in the Louvre was a one time only opportunity not to be missed.

The most memorable lot for auction in the sale was the Yoruba bowl from the Samir Borro collection. It was estimated at € 1,2-1,4 million but failed to sell. Bidding started at € 800K, went very slow and stopped at € 880K, after which the lot was passed. This final bid would already have been a record price, but apparently the reserve price was even higher. I would have taken the € 880K – already three times its actual value if you ask me.

A personal favourite was this Lower Niger bronze bell. With its 34 cm, this rare bell was very impressive in person. Showing that online bidding is now an integral option, the Luluwa figure was bought by a online viewer for € 32K. Worth a last mention, was a Hemba ancestor figure which was bought by a Belgian dealer for € 121K. If the workmanship of the body had matched the incredible head (in the much loved naturalistic style) this statue could have been sold for more than a million euro.


Sotheby's 67 Songye neckrest

Sotheby's 93 Yoruba bowl Borro

94 Baule mask

110 Hemba sotheby's

(all images courtesy of Sotheby’s)

Exhibtions News

Ere Ibeji Exhibition Poster

We had a wonderful sunny opening today, with lots of visitors and interest, so I’m a happy man.

ere ibeji exhibition Bruno Claessens