As part of Grand Challenges 2015, a group of University of Exeter students have been working with the World Cultures collection. They have researched and digitised two objects from the collection, creating additional interpretive material and making two short films about the objects. One of the objects they researched is a Yoruba carved figure from Nigeria; the students uncovered a wealth of information about the object:
“District Officer” – an early-mid 20th century figurine, produced between 1900 and 1925, by Yoruba wood carver Thomas Ona Odulate. Ona was born and based in Ijebu Ode, Nigeria, and later moved to Lagos, where he produced several other figurines of a similar style. Most of his figurines have separate parts, with this one produced with a detached hat and pair of glasses.
Almost all of Thomas Ona’s figurines were sold to the British. Some were commissioned, but most were made in advance and marketed. This particular artefact was donated to the museum by the wife of Cecil Hugh Stewart Reynolds Palmer, a colonial district officer, who left Nigeria in 1956 after 28 years of service there. Its dimensions are 250mm x 105mm.
The figurine is a souvenir that illustrates the visitor rather than the local people. Thomas Ona was fascinated with depicting the rank, hierarchy and authority of the European Colonialists who were portrayed with their accoutrements of power. His carvings aimed to capture the essence of the European Colonialist ‘other’ in their dress and manner. The figure is seated upright and appears to depict a well-educated individual, symbolised by the book and glasses which accompany him. It displays a seated District Officer in formal clothing appropriate to the role. “District Officer” can be compared to object 175, Figure of European, of the Yoruba and Benin Collections in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. This artefact was donated by Mr. E. V. Leighton and is currently on display at the museum.
These figures were traditionally carved in soft wood, using an adze and a knife. Yoruba carvings are sculpted from a single piece of wood and vegetable dyes are used, Thomas Ona’s work is no different. Ona painted his sculptures using red and black ink, and white shoe polish – remnants of which can still be seen on the artefact. He often left some areas, such as the flesh, in the natural colour of the wood.
Thomas Ona’s figures are often interpreted as humorous and satirical with their exaggerated features and long-established proportions. The head is out of proportion with the body, since the Yoruba people regarded the head as the most important part of the person. Yet, Ona told friend William Bascom, who acquired 12 of his carved figures, that his works “simply showed how he viewed the world around him”. For Ona, the figurine is an extension of indigenous cultural vocabularies.