Though African works of art have been traditionally identified by the name of the ethnic group that produced them or by a particular style of art, the individual artists who created them were not anonymous. Their names were well known to the people who commissioned artworks and often to the people who saw them. Many artists were noted for their distinctive and recognizable personal styles, and their renown usually reached well beyond their own villages. One such artist was Olowe of Ise. Active during the first quarter of this century in the small town of Ise in southwestern Nigeria, Olowe is considered by many Western art historians to be the most important Yoruba artist of the 20th century. His unique style and remarkable technical skill commanded the attention of Yoruba kings, who commissioned him to sculpt doors and other objects for their palaces.
A major exhibition of the work of this imaginative and highly skilled artist opens March 15 at the National Museum of African Art. On view through September 7, "Olowe of Ise: A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings" features veranda posts, figures, containers, and elaborately carved and decorated doors celebrated for their high, uneven relief. The artist's distinctive hand and exceptional virtuosity are evident in the elongated form and careful detailing of the female figure in the ritual container, and in the opposing geometric patterns of the door panel. "An artist of universal appeal," writes NMAfA director Roslyn A. Walker in the show's catalogue, "Olowe of Ise was unique among Yoruba artists and remains without peer."