NCMA Recommends: Palace Door (ilekun)
Olówè of Isè, Palace Door (ilekun), early 20th century, iroko wood and traces of pigment, H. 76 ⨯ W. 42 ⨯ D. 2 in., Gift of Dr. Rhonda Morgan Wilkerson
As you enter West Building, you are greeted by the recent installation of African art, a sneak peek of what’s to come in the NCMA’s comprehensive reinstallation project. The impressive wooden Palace Door (ilekun) was created by one of the most renowned carvers in the history of Yorùbá material culture, Olówè of Isè. He was known for his innovative techniques that lend energy and dimension to his carvings. Olówè was born Olóweré in Ẹfọ̀n-Alààyè, a royal town and center for the arts, in the early 1870s. There is very little written information about his life. Much of the information comes from oral histories told by his descendants, including his lengthy but celebratory oríkì (praise poem)—a true sign of respect for his craft.
The iconography depicted on the door is both symbolic and aesthetic. For example, the disembodied faces, which feature often in Olówè’s work, may represent war captives or royal ancestors and create a visually rhythmic border. Interspersed among the faces are interlaced designs reminiscent of Solomon’s knots. These may also be a reference to the Ghanaian adinkra pattern called kramo bone, which warns against deception and hypocrisy.
The figures in the center appear to all be men except for the leftmost. This sole female faces the male figures and reaches to embrace the man next to her, who in turn embraces her breasts in a gesture indicating (and honoring) her essential role as a source of community well-being, growth, and fecundity. Though their body positionings mimic those of two wrestlers engaged in a match, as seen in the Olówè door from the palace of Ilesha, they are more likely a depiction of a husband and wife. Given that the door is carved in low relief and features geometric designs in addition to sparse anthropomorphic figures, it may be one of the earliest works by this acclaimed carver.
The inclusion in the NCMA’s collection of this remarkable door by a well-known and celebrated hand represents a leap forward in proper representation for African creators of the early 20th century. With this addition, the collection draws attention to problems of anonymity in African art and begins to rectify the colonial erasure of African identities in this canon. Olówè’s work is respected in the world of African art, and the Palace Door’s inclusion in the NCMA’s impressive and growing collection of Yorùbá artworks is a rare treat we are honored to share with you. —Amanda Maples, Curator of African Art
- From the Dallas Museum of Art: “Artists & Designers: Olowe of Ise”
- From the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Bracelet, Yoruba Peoples”
- From Smarthistory: “Olowe of Ise, Veranda Post (Yoruba Peoples)”
Oríkì are praise songs or poems. They play a significant part in Yorùbá oral histories. This excerpt is from an oríkì sung by one of Olówè’s wives. Read the whole oríkì here or in the book The Yoruba Artist (1994) edited by Rowland Abiodun, John Pemberton III, and Henry J. Drewal.
I am … Oloju-ifun Olowe
Olowe, my excellent husband.
Outstanding leader in war.
Elemoso [Emissary of the king].
One with a mighty sword.
Handsome among his friends.
Outstanding among his peers.
One who carves the hard wood of the iroko tree as though it were as soft as a calabash.
One who achieves fame with the proceeds of his carving.
For more on how to write your own oríkì, or as Luvvie Ajayi Jones calls it, “your personal hype mantra,” check out Jones’s template.
What’s In Store
The Museum Store presents energetic original paintings created by Raleigh mural artist Georgia Tardy. Similar to Olówè of Isè, Tardy communicates a spiritual dynamism in her works, which contain dimensions beyond what can be seen at first glance. When visiting the Store, enjoy Tardy’s hand-painted floral mural at the entrance.
Image courtesy of Georgia Tardy
Join us Saturday, February 19, for an afternoon of creativity, community, and honoring African heritage with the Kuumba Community Drum Circle. Led by Robert J. Corbitt III of the Kuumba Cultural Arts Collective, this improvisational experience is free and sure to uplift the spirit.
Image courtesy of Robert J. Corbitt III
Then head to SECU Auditorium in East Building on Sunday, February 20, for Chamber Music Raleigh presents Harlem Quartet. Performances take place at 1 pm and 3 pm. The New York–based Harlem Quartet offers diverse programming that combines music from the standard string quartet canon with jazz, Latin, and contemporary works.
Image courtesy of Chamber Museum Raleigh