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Olowe of Ise, Veranda Post (Yoruba people)

Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Man] We're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in their galleries devoted to the art of Africa. Looking at this large sculpture which was originally a veranda post. That is, it was this vertical sculpture originally intended to be among the structural posts of a palace porch. - [Woman] This was created for a palace among the Yoruba in Nigeria by a well-known artist named Olowe of Ise. And Ise is a region in Southwestern Nigeria where this artist came from. - [Man] There are numerous royal objects that this artist produced. This particular sculpture at the Met, shows a mounted figure holding the attributes of a warrior, or perhaps a warrior king. Let's refer to him as a king, since he represents military power, the power of the enthroned king, and his rule. - [Woman] Horses were introduced into this region, the Sahel, and to the Yoruba sometime in the 10th century. - [Man] In his left hand, the king holds a spear, this traditional instrument of power, but in his right hand he holds a pistol, a modern weapon. He is frontal, he is the largest figure, and he completely outstrips the horse in terms of his scale. - [Woman] He is the largest figure, and by far the most important, but the horse that he sits on, and the woman that the horse is resting on top of, are both necessary for his rule. - [Man] So it's not just a celebration of the king's power, the sculpture is also an expression of the source of his power. That his power is founded on the power of his community. - [Woman] And there's the practical aspect, which is the cavalry that was used to win wars, the pistol, and the spear. And then there's the spiritual, which is represented by this woman who is completely nude except for a series of waist beads. Who kneels in supplication and support of this important king. - [Man] And one of the ways we know that her power is spiritual, is that among the Yoruba, a nude woman would be a representation of fertility. - [Woman] Here then, the king is suggesting that he can rely on, he can be supported by, this great potential to provide his community with fertile harvest with all that they need to have an abundant life. - [Man] But also the spiritual is represented by the bulging eyes, where we can still see a little bit of the original blue pigment. The idea that one can look into the spiritual realm. - [Woman] And among the Yoruba there are a series of masquerades, wooden structures donned by men, and a complimentary institution is spirit possession for women. So in some cases bulging eyes suggest her ability to see into the other realm and take on this spirit to support her community. - [Man] And both of those figures share another characteristic: a gap in the middle of their top teeth. A sign of beauty. - [Woman] The kneeling figure below is flanked by two attendants who are carved to angle out into our space. And each hold a bowl or a container that has been hollowed out on top of their heads. We want to walk around it, the way in which the figures are positioned beg to be encircled. While there were certainly court carvers prior to Olowe, he's really known for his ability to break out of the mold of frontality. - [Man] Architecture is generally rectilinear, and here the artist has preserved that at the very top where we see the strictly geometric, four-square post just above the king's head. But then as the sculpture moves downward, there is an increasing freedom in terms of direction. - [Woman] Each figure, although very simplified and abstract with emphasis on the head, is also incredibly decorative. So there's embellishments on the man's vest, on the horse saddle, and on the hair. - [Man] And many of those embellishments are actually rings that circulate around the figures, and invite us to walk around in a very deliberate way. We see that on the bridle of the horse's nose, we see it on the rings of the barrels that are being held by the attendants, and we see it on the waist beads of the woman below. (soft piano music)