Studio Portrait of Moshood Olúṣọmọ Bámigbóyè from the Early 1970s. Ìsálù family compound, Kájọlà, Kwara State, Nigeria, January 2019.
Photograph by Nguveren Torkwase Olúfúntọ́ Ahu.

Islamic Influence in the Work of Yorùbá Sculptor Bámigbóyè

October 16, 2022 By: James Green

Moshood Olúṣọmọ Bámigbóyè was a legendary figure in the arts of twentieth-century Nigeria. Born in about 1885 in the small town of Kájọlà (in present-day Kwara State, Nigeria) toward the end of the Èkìtìparapọ̀ War (1879–86), also known as the Kírìjì War, in which his own family fought, he was around seven years old when his parents understood that his destiny was to be a sculptor even though wood carving was not a family tradition.

Apprenticed to an unknown master, he was likely inspired by the great sculptors of neighbouring towns such as Ajiguna (ca. 1850–ca. 1945) who practised in nearby Ìlọfà and Dàda, known as Aréó-ògún-yàn-ná of Òsi-Ìlọrin (ca. 1880–1954) whose workshop was located about 5 miles from the artist’s home and whose style is closely related to the artist’s own. Working within the bounds of tradition, and yet perfecting his own distinct interpretation through practice, by 1920 Bámigbóyè had established his own workshop in Kájọlà where he would continue to carve until his death in 1975.

Moshood Olúṣọmọ Bámigbóyè (Yorúbà, ca. 1885–1975), Atófòjọ́wò (You Can Look at It for a Whole Day), Mask for an Ẹpa Festival with a Superstructure Depicting a Ruler (Ọba). Kájọlà, Kwara State, Nigeria, 1920–30. Possibly erínmodò (African oil nut tree) and pigment. Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund and Gift of Mary Price, inv. no. 1991.165. © Estate of Moshood Olúṣọmọ Bámigbóyé. Courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art

Part of a regional network of sculptors, Bámigbóyè was celebrated for his court and religious commissions, especially masks for the annual Ẹpa festival, which are today considered some of the most spectacular and complex works of Yorùbá sculpture ever created. In these sculpted and painted monuments to various spiritual and ancestral forces, Bámigbóyè pushed the limits of what was possible within the formal constraints of the Ẹpa tradition. He gave one of his most ambitious masks representing a king or Ọba the praise name Atófòjọ́wò a word that means “You Can Look at It for a Whole Day”, for the sculpture contained so much marvellous detail drawn directly from the world around him. All of his major Ẹpa masks are currently on view at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, the centrepiece of the exhibition Bámigbóyè: A Master Sculptor of the Yorùbá Tradition.

Moshood Olúṣọmọ Bámigbóyè, Atófòjọ́wò (You Can Look at It for a Whole Day), Mask for an Ẹpa Festival with a Superstructure Depicting a Ruler (Ọba). Kájọlà, Kwara State, Nigeria, ca. 1920. Newark Museum of Art, N.J. on view as part of the exhibition Bámigbóyè: A Master Sculptor of the Yorùbá Tradition.

Bámigbóyè lived during a period of great change for the people of Nigeria. Coming of age during the British colonial occupation in the region, around 1930 he was invited to teach wood carving at a government school in Òmù-Àrán. Over the next 15 years, he mentored many students and gained national and international recognition. His work began to be exhibited and published in the 1930s, and he was visited by numerous Europeans including Kenneth C. Murray, Nigeria’s first Surveyor of Antiquities and later Director of the Federal Department of Antiquities, who interviewed the artist around 1935 and published on his carving technique. He was generally described as “Bamgboye of Odo-Owa” in literature from the 1950s onwards.

By the time of Nigerian independence in 1960 Bámigbóyè was recognized as one of the greatest carvers of his generation: described in his oriki or oral praise poem as:“[c]arver who provokes elders’ awe” [ọ̀gbẹń à ki ́ ag̀ bà gbin]. In 1963 he was elected to be ẹ̀dẹ̀mọrùn (king) of his hometown of Kájọlà and served as a judge on the local court. It is likely that around this time he converted to Islam and took the name Moshood. One of the distinct characteristics of his later work is its intense focus on geometric patterning which reflects the influence of the Islamic arts, especially the textile, leatherworking, and wood carving traditions of the Nupe, Hausa, and Fulani peoples of northern Nigeria, historically part of the Sokoto Caliphate.

Bámigbóyè’s hometown of Kájọlà is in present-day western Nigeria, on Kwara State’s southernmost border with Èkìti State, in the Èkìti cultural region of northeastern Yorùbáland. Considered an “ethnic frontier zone,” the Yorùbá mini-states and kingdoms located in this region were colonized by competing regional superpowers over the centuries. By the time of the artist’s birth in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Kájọlà and the surrounding towns were under the dominion of the emir of Ìlọrin, the southernmost extension of the Islamic Sokoto Caliphate ruled by the Sultan of Sokoto. Bámigbóyè thus grew up in a world that looked toward the Islamic north as the seat of power with the emir of Ilọrin representing the most powerful ruler in the wider region. In a photograph from 1967, he is shown with a metallic cloth wrapped around his shoulders that was a gift from the ninth emir of Ilọrin, Alhaji Zulukarnaini Muhammadu Gambari (r. 1959–92) and demonstrates his close ties and fealty to that ruler.

Ẹgbẹ ́ Dídá Festival, Showing Bámigbóyè with Police Officers, His High Chiefs, Olorìs, and Princesses. Kájọlà, Kwara State, Nigeria, May 12, 1967. Photographer unknown. Collection of Ọba Joseph Adélékè Oyèwọlé (J.P.), Afìdípọ̀tẹ̀mọ́lẹ̀ I Published in James Green, Bámigbóyè: A Master Sculptor of the Yorùbá Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2022) p. 151.

Samuel Babatunde Bámigbóyè (born 1962), the artist’s stepson and apprentice, remembers how Bámigbóyè would use about eleven different knives, each commissioned from the blacksmith according to the artist’s specifications, to complete the final and most intricate stages of carving, known as dídán and fínfín. Unique amongst Yorùbá carvers, and no doubt reflecting the veneration the artist had for his own craft, Bámigbóyè decorated the handles of his knives with bands of geometric patterning and finials in the form of stylized heads. Bámigbóyè is recorded as using his entire arm in a fluid motion when he carved, and he never worked from preparatory sketches. The sculptor Lukman Àlàdé Fákẹýẹ (born 1983) records that, according to legend, when Bámigbóyè’s right hand was tired from carving he would simply use his left hand to complete the task. The combination of crisp figurative carving seen in the finials combined with a band of exquisite geometric patterning is characteristic of the artist’s style. Three of his knives on loan from the National Museum, Lagos are currently on view in New Haven.

Moshood Olúṣọmọ Bámigbóyè, Yorùbá, ca. 1885–1975, Two Carving Knives (Ọ̀bẹ Ìgbẹ́gi) with Finials in the Shape of a Woman’s Head [far left], and Scraper (Ọ̀kikọ) with a Finial in the Shape of a Man’s Head [right], Kájọlà, Kwara State, Nigeria, ca. 1920–75 and ca. 1920–42 on loan from the National Museum, Lagos, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria (lg1988.r.129; lg598 and lg599) for the exhibition Bámigbóyè: A Master Sculptor of the Yorùbá Tradition.

According to Murray, when carving geometric patterns Bámigbóyè drew the knife (ọ̀bẹ ìgbẹ́gi) toward his thumb as he worked and, maintaining a roughly sixty-degree angle between the knife edge and the plane of the wood, produced sharp V-shaped cuts. Patterns were built in distinct stages (lẹsẹẹsẹ). Bámigbóyè provided names for each of the geometric patterns he used in his carving, giving insight into how he interpreted his own designs.

A series of patterns called ẹ̀yà di ẹyọ (“a division into parts”) or àwọlé (“something dragged over something else”), for instance, recalls the pattern-making process itself. Another group — ìpẹ́ ọ̀nì (“scales of a crocodile”) or àwọ̀n (“net”), constructed of diagonal lines — reflects some of the sources of inspiration on which the artist drew from the world around him, as do bàtà ọlọ́rọ̀ (“sandals of a rich man”), ojú ẹyẹlé (“pigeons’ eyes”), or egun eja (“bones of a fish”). For Bámigbóyè and other sculptors in the Yorùbá tradition, patterns also served as shorthand for proverbial wisdom. The pattern orogún ni ikú, for example, relates to a proverb that warned that “a rival will bring death,” while alájá brings to mind “the owner of a dog or one who settles a quarrel.”

The characterisation and naming of patterns likely also served as a useful didactic tool for Bámigbóyè as a teacher; mastery of the ìpẹ́ ọ̀nì pattern, for instance, was necessary before a student could carve something more elaborate, like ẹ̀yà di ẹyọ. Once these foundational patterns had been learned, the potential for variation was endless. Murray carefully documented the different steps the artist took to complete over a dozen different patterns.

Bámigbóyè’s Patterns. From: Kenneth C. Murray, “Wood Carving (Yoruba),” Nigerian Teacher (June 1936): 51, 53. 1a–1f: Stages of carving the igbọ pattern; 2a–c: Stages of carving the ìpẹ ́ ọ̀nì (“scales of a crocodile”) pattern; 3a–c: Stages of carving the àwọ̀n (“net”) pattern; 4a–c: Stages of carving the ẹỳ à di ẹyọ (“a division into parts”) pattern; 5a–c: Stages of carving the bàtà ọlọ́rọ̀ (“sandals of a rich man”) pattern published in James Green, Bámigbóyè: A Master Sculptor of the Yorùbá Tradition, (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2022) p. 143.

Bámigbóyè appears to have been directly inspired by Islamic textile traditions and reproduces patterns which appear in prestige robes (riga) in his carvings. Indeed, the artist is remembered for his love of fine textiles: his praise song records that he is “One who wears expensive asọ òkè to pose resplendent in wisdom at the loft” (ọmọ amújẹ̀gbẹ̀jẹǵ bẹ̀ asọ òkè mọràn gún rẹrẹ sájà).

By the late-nineteenth century, Ìlọrin had developed into a centre of Yorùbá textile manufacture, with workshops producing incredibly fine cloth using a wide variety of sophisticated techniques. This aspect of the artist’s work is seen most clearly in the decoration of two stools (àpótí) by the artist on loan for the exhibition from the British Museum, London and the National Museum, Lagos which have decorated seats, the flat round surface providing an ideal opportunity for an elaborate geometric design scheme. In the example from Lagos, in the centre roundel the artist has carved a variation of the interlocking “endless knot” pattern called igbo seen in prestige robes.

Moshood Olúṣọmọ Bámigbóyè, Stool (Àpótí). Kájọlà, Kwara State, Nigeria, ca. 1950–75. Ìrókò (African teak). National Museum, Lagos, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria, LG1987.R.1209 on view as part of the exhibition Bámigbóyè: A Master Sculptor of the Yorùbá Tradition.

Bámigbóyè likely initially carved the individual roundels first and then commenced their interior decoration. The decorated tops of these stools — and their emphasis on geometric patterning — calls to mind the stools carved by the Nupe peoples to the north of Èkìtì. Bámigbóyè’s attention to symmetry and balance create designs superb in their individual parts and overall effect. The stools are presented in the exhibition with two examples of Hausa or Nupe Prestige Robe (riga) from northern Nigeria and archival portraits of the artist wearing fine embroidered robes.

Prestige Robe (Riga). Hausa or Nupe; northern Nigeria, late 1800s–by 1910. Cotton and imported silk (àlàárì). Cleveland Museum of Art, Alma Kroeger Fund, inv. no. 2013.6. Courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art

Throughout his life, Bámigbóyè served many roles that promoted the health and peaceful governance of his people acting as chief herbalist (Oloríawo Oníṣègùn) and priest of the divinatory oracle Ifá. The artist considered his own ability to carve, heal and in his later years to govern judiciously in the local court as simply a ‘gift from god’ and his late conversion to Islam does not mean a rejection of other forms of faith or religious worship. As he had done at Ẹpa and Àrẹ festivals of his youth, he played an important role in the annual Islamic festival of Id-el-Kabir (Iléyá) in his later life, presenting a “big white ram” as a gift to the Muslims at the praying ground. His family recall that Muslims and Christians and those of traditional Yorùbá faith were all welcome at his house and to join him in prayer; he lived by the proverb: “It is prayer that is answered, not power” (Àdúrà ni ńgbà, agbára ki gbà).

On view until January 8th, 2023, Bámigbóyè: A Master Sculptor of the Yorùbá Tradition reunites for the first time the major sculptures from the fifty years of his career. These are presented with works from other Yorùbá art traditions, such as textiles and beadwork, and works from neighbouring Islamic art traditions from the north to provide a broader scope of Yorùbá art history and indicate the artist’s own frame of reference. In his sculpture, celebrated for its balance and richly detailed figurative and geometric carving, the artist sought to create an idealised portrait of the world around him and so actively promote the health and peaceful functioning of society. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue.

Bámigbóyè: A Master Sculptor of the Yorùbá Tradition runs at the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut until January 8th, 2023.

James Green

James Green, the Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation Associate Curator of African Art at the Yale University Art Gallery, was born in Johannesburg. He received a B.A. from Keble College, University of Oxford, and an M.A. from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and he completed his PhD in 2017 at the University of East Anglia. His dissertation focused on the art of the Teke peoples of West Central Africa from 1880 to 1920 and involved fieldwork at Mbe, Republic of the Congo. While a fellow and research associate in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he contributed to the 2015–16 exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty. At Yale, his dual interest in collaborating with students and faculty and cultivating partnerships with museums and universities in Africa helps to illuminate Africa’s rich art traditions and establish tangible links with contemporary art practices. He is the curator of the exhibition Bámigbóyè: A Master Sculptor of the Yorùbá Tradition.

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