Veranda post of enthroned king and senior wife
The African culture has always been an enticing topic for the art lovers. It was believed that the African art provided much of the ancient geometric profiles which could rejuvenate the modern art. The remains of artwork and jewelry found in southern Africa are signs that there were organized societies there up to 100,000 years ago (Bowden, Wilson, 2009). The Art Institute of Chicago is one such encyclopedic museum that houses some of the finest collections of worlds various art and culture. Amongst these collections, the regal sculpture, “Veranda post of enthroned king and senior wife (Opo Ogoga)” fascinated me. The sculpture originally belonged to the Yoruba people, better known in the present day as Nigeria, Africa. The Yoruba are the largest of the cultural groups in Africa and have a thousand year old tradition. The sculpture explains in depth the traditions followed by the royal Yoruban society.
The artwork “Veranda post of enthroned king and senior wife (Opo Ogoga)” has been created by the renowned Yoruba artist, Olowe Ise. As stated by Hackett, Abiodun (1998) the Yoruba believe that calling out a person’s name can summon her/his spiritual essence and cause her/him to act accordingly to the meaning of the name (given at birth) or the desire of the caller; hence the practice of using nick names such as Olowe Ise (meaning Olowe from the town of Ise). The creation of this artwork commenced in 1910 and was completed in 1914. It has got its title, “Veranda post” as it formed one of the four posts of the palace veranda, in the courtyard of Ogoga or the king of Ikere, Nigeria. This artwork is mainly carved out of wood. Pigment has been used to further enhance its looks. The life-sized art with a height of 60 inches, width of 12.5 inches and depth of 16 inches is indeed a masterpiece and briefly depicts a coronation ceremony of the Yoruban Ogoga. The magnitude of the character of the senior wife shows the importance of women in the Yoruba society. It is definitely very touching to see the importance given to the female, especially the wife, during an event such as the coronation which is traditionally presided by the males in most of the cultures. The Yoruban culture believed their women to be the pillars of their community and this has been well portrayed in this artwork displaying the strong shoulders of the senior wife making it rational to be used as one of the four posts of the veranda of the palace. The model was originally painted in red, white and indigo but the colors have faded with time giving the art an earthen appearance. The verdana faced the inner courtyard of the palace where the ogoga, king of Ikere, received visitors (Neff, 1989).
Further describing the art, the Veranda post is installed on a floor, probably with a screw ensuring minimum contact to the ground and providing maximum exposure of the artwork. The sculpture depicts an enthroned king as the central part of the masterpiece with a senior wife standing tall behind him and two smaller forms at the feet of the king. The conventional African art makes use of hierarchical proportions which makes evident the seniority of the characters in the work, with the standing wife being the senior most followed by the king and two other characters, one right at his feet, supposed to be a junior wife who is kneeling before the king and other form on the right hand side of the king, represents the con artist Esu, playing a flute. The crowns on the characters mark them as the royal personalities whereas the flute player is seen without any. The king is seated on a chair with a high back rest. His arms are at sides with palms resting on his knees. The fingers have been finely carved making it expressive. The king is represented wearing a beaded conical “Ade” (crown) and a long thigh length top with full sleeves and a low cut necklace. The bracelets and anklets are carved in a manner to define the individual beads. The crown has a peculiar design of a large bird mounted on its tip with a long beak of the bird dug into the middle section of the crown. It has a carving of three human-like faces on each side with chiseled herringbone patterns that are horizontally arrayed. The king has an oval face with almond-shaped eyes, a wide nose, an open mouth revealing his teeth and the gap between the front teeth. He has a long neck. His feet do not touch the ground and are midway to the throne’s legs. He is not sitting upright on the throne, rather has bent slightly forward. The standing figure of the senior wife has her arms at sides with slightly bent elbows. Her hands rest on back of king’s chair and the fingers have been given the same effect as in case of the king. All the figures in this art have been characterized by oval-shaped face, almond-shaped eyes, wide nose and open mouth disclosing the teeth. The senior wife carries three vertical, scoured lines on each cheek and her eyes are open wide depicting her powerful nature. The Opo ogoga is represented wearing a large crown with a crisscross pattern on each side. Unlike the king’s crown, it does not taper at the top; instead it forms quite a large base to be installed as a support post. She is seen wearing a loincloth and a low cut necklace. The bracelets have been carved with lines so as to give a beaded appearance. The garment worn by the queen has got thick horizontal lines at the waist. She is shown to have exaggerated conical shaped breasts with low relief nipples. She carries a very low navel and her legs lack articulation with plank-like feet. The male figure standing on the right hand side of the king is seen holding a flute to the mouth with bent arms. The incised lines on the hands imply to his fingers. He is shown with a well groomed stature and seen wearing pants. The kneeling female figure in front of king has both the arms at sides and the hands resting on knees. She is the junior wife and represented wearing a tapered crown with incised lines and geometric pattern. Her attire, the loincloth is similar to that of the senior wife, with thick horizontal lines at the waist. She is seen here projecting her conical shaped breasts with low relief nipples and a low navel. The legs again lack detailing with plank-like feet and the incised lines implying her toes. It is apparent that there was another figure to the left hand of the king which does not exist in the model, yet the plank-like feet of the non-existing entity remain.
The artwork is a form of a traditional art. The model is apparently asymmetrical, but the balance is maintained using the right amount of chiseling in the exact places to create the forms. It is considered among the artist’s masterpieces for the way it embodies his unique style, including the interrelationship of figures, their exaggerated proportions, and the open space between them. (Essential Guide, 2009). The artwork is a realistic piece depicting the coronation ceremony in the Yoruba culture.
The work mainly emphasizes on the Yoruba people and their belief in giving importance to their women. During the coronation ceremony, the senior wife stands behind the king’s throne and places the crown on his head, thus expressing that men require the support from their female counterparts to establish reign. The senior wife keeps a fixed gaze on the king with her hands over the throne in a protective manner. This depicts her functional importance as a political mentor to the king and also states her connection with the spiritual world. Although smaller in stature the king is given an authoritative status by considering him the central part of the work. Yet the most important and eye catching structure in the art is the distinctive crown. The bird on the top of the crown conveys a divine presence and symbolizes the powerful female ancestors and deities who support the king. These female ancestors and deities are known to the Yoruba as “our mothers”.
The artist, Olowe, is considered an important artist of the 20th century. He was a wood sculptor and had mastered the African style of design called Oju-ona. He was the first sculptor to the King of Ise, though he was called upon for providing service to the other rulers as well. This artifact in reality was a commission to the King of Ikere. His unique style of creating depths in open spaces is often admired. This is achieved by using elongated structures of characters rather than the conventionally short statures.
The artifact undoubtedly is an invaluable work by the master carver Olowe. I personally liked the work mainly due to the portrayal of importance and respect given to the women in an ancient traditional society such as the Yoruba. In the world which has mainly adapted to male dominance, the Yoruban culture has gone a mile ahead in giving the rights to women. The work does not seem to be inexhaustible as it is just a veranda post, which has clearly depicted all the reasons for which it had been created.
Bowden, Rob. Wilson, Rosie (2009). African Culture. Heinemann-Raintree Library.
Hackett, Roaslind. Abiodun, Rowland. (1998). Art and Religion in Africa (Illustrated), Continuum International Publishing Group.
Neff, Terry A. (1989), The Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Volume 15, Number 1, University of Chicago Press.
Art Institute of Chicago: The Essential Guide. (2009). 3 edition. Art Institute of Chicago.