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Detroit Institute of Arts displays Nigerian Prince's throne created by renowned artist Olwè of Isè
Chief’s Throne, Olw of Is, 19th century, wood, pigments. Detroit Institute of Arts.

DETROIT, MICH.- Balance of Power: A Throne for an African Prince, on view Nov. 19, 2013–March 16, 2014 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, provides an in-depth look at a royal throne carved by renowned Yoruba artist Olw of Is. The exhibit will illustrate how the throne embodies the complexity of power relationships—both within Yoruba society and between Africans and Westerners—during the early decades of European colonial rule.

The exhibit is free with museum admission and free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. It is organized by the DIA with support from the Walter Gibbs Endowment Fund.

The story of the throne begins in 1930 in the town of Is in southwestern Nigeria, home to the Yoruba people, where the British had exerted political control since colonizing the area in 1897. Yoruba leaders had to walk the line between cooperating with the British colonizers and holding on to their traditional status as sacred rulers. One way they achieved this balance was through art. Looking closely at the throne from different angles and through different eyes reveals the complex world of power play that was southwestern Nigeria in the 1930s.

This throne was meant for Price Ilori, heir apparent of the town of Is in southwestern Nigeria. Because Ilori received visits from his Yoruba subjects, other Africans and Europeans, his throne needed to project an image of power to this diverse audience. To achieve this goal, the king to be called upon the foremost artist of his day, Olw of Is.

Olw was born around 1870 and died in 1938. According to Yoruba oral history, Olw could sculpt a person’s likeness on the spot, without looking at the wood he was carving. In his day, Olw was the most sought-after artist for Yoruba royalty. In the last three decades, American museums have sought works by Olw, and the DIA is one of only two museums to own three of his pieces.

Like his other works, Olw took pains to create a unique object that would appeal to his cosmopolitan patron, a powerful Yoruba prince. Olw’s flash of brilliance was to combine the Yoruba royal stool with the European throne’s back and armrests. Traditional Yoruba thrones are cylindrical stools with no backs; to a Yoruba visitor, this stool shape symbolized a leader’s sacred right to rule. Western thrones with backs and armrests were, in the eyes of Africans, exotic European-style furniture that enhanced a ruler’s prestige.

Olw employed a fascinating visual vocabulary to decorate the throne. Various symbols and placements of decoration imparted different meanings to Yoruba and Western viewers. For example, the armrests show a European being carried by Africans. A European visitor would have seen this as commemorating the 1910 visit of a British district commissioner to the palace of a nearby king. A visit from a powerful colonial officer was rare—usually commissioners ordered African kings to come to them. To a Yoruba viewer, the European figure symbolized colonial rule; each time the Yoruba prince sat in his throne, his arms rested regally above this symbol of European power. Such was the subversive wit of Olw—the skill to camouflage the message of Prince Ilori’s superior power over that of the British colonizers.

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