Rare Carved Wooden Bowl With Maternity Figure (Olumeye)
Yoruba People, Oyo tribe, Erin, Nigeria
height: 35cm, width: 11cm, depth: 14cm
This figural bowl group, which has provenance believed to date to before 1922, comprises a bowl held by a kneeling female maternity figure (a form known as Olumeye) on a circular base, is carved from a single piece of light wood. It exudes beauty in its simplest and most basic form. Traditionally, kneeling was a gesture of respect and devotion among the Yoruba. Olumeye is seen as a messenger to the spirits. In Yoruba, the term also means ‘she who brings honor’.
The figure has an oval face. She has rounded, almost oblong-shaped eyes. Her eye lashes are incised prominently. Her nose is flared. Her ears are semi-elliptical; her lips full and sensual. Three vertical scarifications are on both cheeks. This type of scarification, termed pele, is regarded by many Yoruba communities in south-western Yorubaland as ‘gems’ on the human face.
Such images of the female represent a manifestation of Yoruba ideals of beauty and the gods’ power to bequeath fertility. The carver has carefully executed the figure’s composition to conform to Yoruba traditions as well as to achieve a great sense of equilibrium. This is seen by the manner in which the female figure kneels with her hips resting on her heels, her curling toes, and the zigzag shape created by the positioning of her thighs, legs and feet. This is balanced by the elongated face, the forward-jutting chin and the sweeping backward forehead.
Her torso is erect. Her strong arms hold firmly to the bowl. The bowl itself is simple and decorated with a continuous incised row of long vertical rectangles.
She has traditional bridal head-dressing: a raised single-crested coiffure with incised triangular motifs. This coiffure is called irun agogo, which is commonly related to marriages.
Five bracelets are carved on each of her wrist. Straps are incised around the female figure’s shoulders, arms and hips. Otherwise, the figure is naked.
However, the figure has been decorated with thee actual, contemporaneous necklaces. The shortest is of thin black coconut disks, and wrapped perfectly around her neck. The second is of the same material but three times in length. The third is the most impressive. It is more than four times the length of the first and comprises beautiful turquoise blue and yellow glass beads, interspersed with some black wooden beads.
Coloured glass beads were rare and precious. Turquoise blue was especially sought after. These beads measure approximately 1cm in both diameter and thickness. Blue beads often suggest that its wearer is a devotee to Osun, the patron goddess of medicinal water.
A baby figure is carved strapped to the female figure’s back. He has a triangular amulet carved on his back. The amulet, called a tirah by the locals, comprises a leather pouch containing religious citations and medicinal herbs. It is an ornament commonly used to chase away bad spirits. The baby figure also wears a brimmed cap that covers his ears. These brimmed caps are called fila eleti aja by the locals because they resemble dog’s ears. In Yoruba carvings, such head gear is only worn by male. However, there is an exception when a male figure is accompanied by his twin female counterpart.
The baby figure holds the breasts of the female figure with both hands, reaching around from behind her. The breasts mostly are hidden, but are still visibly pointy and firm. He positions her breasts towards to bowl, the suggestion being that her milk will be collected in the bowl, a gesture that evokes fertility and bounty.
Figural bowls like this were used to offer kola nuts to guests in domestic hospitality or to the deities in religious ceremonies. They could also be used as receptacles for small gifts on a shrine altar, possibly dedicated to Shango, the god of thunder.
In some areas of the Yorubaland, such bowls are used to store sacred stones, believed to be remnants of ancient thunderbolts cast down from the sky.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to pinpoint a definitive use for the bowl. Yoruba carvers often incorporated a variety of seemingly disparate motifs in their objects.
The immediate provenance for this figural group are the descendants of the owners of the tribal art Berkeley Gallery, operated in London by William Ohly (1883-1955) and then by his son Ernest until 1977. The Ohlys also were well known collectors in the field, and dealers and collectors in many others. According to Waterfield & King (2009, p. 105), ‘The Berkeley Galley on Davies Street off Berkeley Square [in London] was a Mecca for collectors during the three decades following its creation in 1941. There could be found Oriental art (both porcelain and bronzes), Oceanic, African, Pre-Columbian, classical antiquities, contemporary ceramics and sculptures – and paintings.’
According to the Ohly’s stockbook, the bowl was confiscated by E. C. Pickwood, at Ayasse, near llorin, in 1922.
However, it is unlikely that this bowl was actually made in Ilorin. Ilorin carvers tended to use quite stark and differing iconography in their carving which differs considerably to that shown in this piece.
The bowl group could not have been carved in Ajasse, a nearby village, either. Carvings from Ajasse usually are identifiable through their distinctive mouth features. The carving of this piece is closer to that produced in Erin, another village in close proximity to Ilorin. It has a number of stylistic traits that hint at an origin in the circle of a small group of respected carvers based in Erin.
A figure of similar form (although perhaps somewhat less impressive) in Brooklyn Museum, New York, is attributed to Maku, the master carver of Erin, or by Toibo, his son. See
In terms of carving, the sculpture here also is aesthetically similar to the female figure in the collection of Nancy and Richard Bloch, which was exhibited in the National Museum of African Art – Smithsonian Institution, Washington from 25 October 1989 to 3 September 1990. It is illustrated in Cole (1989, p. 73, fig. 78).
We are unaware of other published examples.
Overall, this bowl group conveys a sense of tranquillity through the facial expression of the primordial mother. She is youthful, and yet strong and maternal.
It has a beautiful honey golden patina, which gives the female figure an almost luminous glow. The contours have been softened by years of handling. There are no significant or obvious chips, splits or restorations.
Cole, H. M., Icons: Ideals and Power in the Art of Africa, Smithsonian, 1991.
Fagg, W. & Pemberton, J. III.,
Yoruba: Sculpture of West Africa, Collins, 1982.
The Gelede Spectacle: Art, Gender, and Social Harmony in an African Culture, University of Washington Press, 1996.
Encyclopedia of the Ibeji, Ibeji Art, 2008.
Made in Africa, Cassell & Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1975.
Robbins, W. M. & N. I. Nooter,
African Art in American Collections, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.
Rowland, A., Drewal, H. J. & Pemberton, J. III.,
Yoruba: Art and Aesthetics, Museum Rietberg, Zurich, 1991.
Walker, R. A.,
Olowe of Ise: A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings, National Museum of African Art, 1998.
Waterfield, H. & J. C. H. King,
Provenance: Twelve Collectors of Ethnographic Art in England 1760-1990, PHP, 2009.
Ernest Ohly, Berkeley Galleries, London. Purchased June 1953. Notes in the stock book state “Ayasse, llorin, confiscated by E. C. Pickwood, 1922.
Inventory no.: 2005