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  • This Is Our StoryIconography of Carved Doors and Panels in Ọ̀yọ́ Palace
  • Stephen Fọlárànmí (bio)

Ilẹ̀kún ọlá yín kò ní wó

Aṣọ ọlá yín kò ní fàya

May the doors of your wealth never be pulled down

The robes of your wealth will not be torn or ragged

This saying or prayer is one of the numerous expressions among the Yorùbá about the door and its significance, not only as a physical and important aspect of their architecture, but also in their language and culture. It also alludes to its pride of place as perhaps the most decorated element of Yorùbá architecture. From private homes, to the homes of the rich, shrines, and palaces, Yorùbá doors are usually imbued with a considerable array of images and icons that proclaims the owner’s identity, religion, occupation. The Yorùbá are not unique in this respect. For example, among the Dogon,1 the door is as important as the house on which it is affixed. The granary, according to Willett (2002: 176), protects the the food stored inside it, while the door is seen or referred to as an element not only for physical protection, but also as a spiritual means of warding off unwanted spirits. It is reasonable, therefore, to expect the door to receive aesthetic attention by embellishment with an array of images.

A number of studies have been carried out on carved doors and other aspects of Yorùbà palace art, and these studies have provided vast knowledge about Yorùbá art and its meaning. Some of the most in-depth studies related to the present endeavor are by Kalilu (1992; 2015) on the art of Old Ọ̀yọ́ and how it has shaped the art of the new Ọ̀yọ́. He also examined the tradition and history of legendary woodcarvers of Old Ọ̀yọ́. Furthermore, he has provided some explanations2 for the few studies on the art of Old Ọ̀yọ́ and by extension that of the present Ọ̀yọ́. Studies such as Meyerowitz (1943), Carroll (1967), Willett and Picton (1967), Drewal, Pemberton, and Abíọ́dún (1989), Drewal, Pemberton and Abíọ́dún (1994), Picton (1994), Willett (2002), and Walker (1998) have looked at the form and meaning and identification of carvers of Yorùbá doors and panels. Still, too little is known about the carved panels in the palace of the Aláàfin3 of Ọ̀yọ́. Perhaps one of the reasons for this unsatisfactory state of affairs is that before now, access to parts of the palace was difficult,4 especially for outsiders. Abíọ́dún (2014: 290) has also suggested that, at the end of the series of Yorùbá wars that affected most Yorùbá kingdoms starting from Old Ọ̀yọ́, there was a new beginning for Yorùbá creativity, a period he considered perfect for new àsà,5 new compositions, and new themes. The memories of such events were still very fresh and many Yorùbá artists portrayed the history of the wars and consequently new developments in Yorùbáland in their works. As we shall see, the carved panels and doors in the new Ọ̀yọ́ palace contain such images.

Studies of Yorùbá carved doors and panels seem to be concentrated in the Èkìtì area among the Yorùbá, a region that has produced some of the most notable wood carvers in Africa. Only Meyerowitz (1943) seems to have attempted to document a large panel in the garden hall of Ọ̀yọ́ palace. Her study, however, attempted neither to do any in-depth formal analysis of the doors nor to provide meanings of the images on the panel. Meyerowitz actually seemed unimpressed by the artist(s) who carved the panel and those who commissioned it. In her opinion, the panel was not as competently executed as many other carved Yorùbá panels by Bamidele or Olówè of Ìsé, whose works have been more widely studied. This essay aims to correct this situation by examining closely the forms and meaning of the icons on these carved doors, with a view to showing how they are directly relevant to the history of Ọ̀yọ́ palace as...


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