By Nwokeocha Onyinyechi Agatha
The ancient city of Owo is a frontier Yoruba state in South Western Nigeria. It is precisely located in present day Ondo State. Owo is situated approximately midway between Ile-Ife and Benin, 75 miles North West of Benin City and 100 miles East of Ile-Ife.
According to oral tradition, Ojugbelu was the youngest of 16 children of Oduduwa, the progenitor of the Yoruba race. His other brothers divided their father’s property and went to found other kingdoms, while Ojugbelu was out, hunting in the wood. In anger, on his return, he took what was left of his father’s property and accompanied by chiefs, headed eastwards to found Owo. He later became the first Olowo.
In pre-colonial Nigeria, Owo kingdom was large and had political power, but at different times it came under political domination of both Ile-Ife and Benin kingdom.
The affected the city culturally as the two cultures became intermingled with Owo culture; this is largely due to the intensive and extensive content and historic relations between Owo kingdom and Ile-Ife and the Benin kingdoms. The people of Owo were known to have adopted the festivals, chieftaincy titles and religion of their neighbours. This is seen in the Olowo of Owo, adorning a crown made of coral beads like the king of Benin Kingdom rather than the crown of multi-coloured thread beads (ceremonial swords) like the Oba of Benin.
Ile-Ife and Benin had considerable influence on Owo culture, especially, in their sculptures where the style of both Ife and Benin are seen. However, Owo had its peculiar art style and forms distinct from those of her neighbours.
Archaeological Excavations At Owo Igbo-Laja
The fragment of terracotta sculptures were first discovered at a building site at Egberem Street to the north of Okiti-Aseogbo, which incidentally, as Owo claims, is the hill where they first settled after leaving Ife.
The first major archeological excavation in Owo at Igbo-Laja started in 1969 by the late Prof. Ekpo Eyo, then Director of the Federal Department of Antiquities, in which his team unearthed mainly terracotta objects.
The finds demonstrated close links with the Ife terracottas and bronzes as well as the Benin bronzes and wood carvings. The Igbo-Laja finds were dated to the 15th century A.D. and provided concrete evidence of the dual influence of Ife and Benin on Owo art.
Most of the Igbo-Laja objects relate to the theme of sacrifice, which was connected to the appeasement and appeal for assistance, particularly in times of war, famine and epidemic, among others, to Oronsen and the Igogo festival.
Oronsen was a beautiful, influential and affluent Queen of Olowo Renrengenje who, according to oral tradition, left the palace in anger after a confrontation with her co-wives. She sojourned to a place, which coincides with Igbo-Laja location where she disappeared into earth.
Members of the search party from the palace were said to have caught up with her at Igbo-Laja and tried to forcibly bring her back to the palace. The queen declined their appeal and disappeared leaving behind her headgear, Oja with as a sign. Hence the area was called Igbo-Laja the groove of oja (Abiodun R; 1989:101).
Significant Features Of Owo Objects
Owo people are known to be highly skilled in a wide range of craft production, which forms a strong basis for technological advancement and self-reliance. Ile-Ife and Benin had considerable influence on Owo culture, especially in their sculpture where the style of both Ife and Benin are seen.
Regardless of this, Owo had its own peculiar art forms and style distinct from those of his neighbours, which includes the following:
• Most of the Owo objects come in fragments and also in the fragility of terracotta.
• Owo objects are more of rituals and sacrifices.
• Owo lips are thicker.
• The head often comes with crowns.
The faces of Owo objects displays a very realistic expression of the daily life hustle and struggle, these can be seen on a terracotta human head of a bearded man with a frowning face, and also object representing a bare chest man. He has a smiling face.
The Cultural Affinity Between Owo, Ife And Benin Objects
Owo traditional art like most other traditional cultures was influenced by other factors and civilization. The excavation expedition carried out at Igbo-Laja, by late Prof. Expo Eyo, there his team dug up mostly terracotta artifacts indicated evidence of external influence. These discoveries showed close affinity in style between, Ife and that of Benin art
Many theories have been developed to explain this phenomenon some scholars are of the opinions that some of these objects must have been originally brought from Ife.
However, Owo history records another possible source of the affinity between Owo and benin objects. According to oral tradition, during the reign of Olowo Omaro, the king appreciated the need to study Benin’s military organisation and tap from her rich culture and heritage, he sent prince oshogboye, his favourite son and heir apparent to the throne, to Benin. After a period of time, the crown prince returned to Owo with a lot of cultural materials and the skills of their production. This theory of contact and common ancestry has shed more light on the affinity between Ife, Benin and Owo arts forms Umogbai (2008). For instance, Ife facial striations can be found on Owo objects, while an Owo terracotta head bearing Benin facial keloids was found among Igbo-Laja materials.
The Owo and Ife objects are both naturalistic and stylised. They are heavily beaded especially on the hand.
The object representing a fragment of a ritual pot showing a turbaned face with snakes issuing through the nostrils, a motif found in Ife, Benin and Owo. The three arts come in ivory, wood and terracotta, among others, their similarities extend even to aspects of architecture, religion and politics. For instance, the Olowo of Owo wears a crown of coral bead, uses a ceremonial swords. In addition, similar concepts woven around the ram head, divination tapper, door panels as well as items of personal adornment are present in the art works of the three groups.
The Differences Between Owo And Ife Objects
The differences include, but are not limited to the following:
• Even through the Owo and Ife heads have striations, the Owo head does not demonstrate the same degree of refinement and delicacy as the Ife counterpart.
• The nose in Owo head is flatter and wider
• Unlike Ife, the faces of Owo sculpture are of broader striations looking more elaborate than that of Ife
• While the Owo head is round in shape, the Ife head looks oval.
• The Owo head often carries a crown.
• The Cultural Significance Of Owo Objects
Owo object dealt heavily on rituals and also represent the scared position of Olowo. Among these are Osanmasinimi.
Osanmasinmi: Human figure head with ram’s horns, it is object of veneration and adoration on ancestors shrines. The ram’s figurehead is a legendary object, which Olowo Elewuokun accepted as a royal emblem and objects to adorn to shrine of his father. In Owo only descendants of that oba are entitled to Owo this object. Head Figures, a leopard gnawing on a human leg. Ritual objects include a woman holding a cock and basket full of ritual objects.
Also, a hand decorated with ring and waist beads presenting a lizard.
A terracotta sculpture representing a hand heavily beaded holding akoko leaf, is largely used for the rituals chieftaincy installation rites, also believed to give long life and successful reign.
In addition there are many other outstanding objects of antiquity in Owo, which includes AKO figures, Masks (face & helmet), musical instruments, divination objects and objects of adornments e.t.c.
Masks/Helmet are used during Egungun festivals, their primary functions is to wipe away death, pestilence, convulsion and all other mishaps. They are also concerned with the control of power of witchcraft and other anti-social forces. Also used for entertainment.
Door panels; Design on door panels ranges from abstract geometric forms to the relief carving of faces or the figures depicting happenings of daily in Owo community. Also carved door panels are regarded as status symbol in Yoruba-land and for this reason they are often found in chiefly houses and royal places.
Ako Figure: It is a second burial figure in Owo.
Ayo Game: Used to establish superiority over his opponents and also for relaxation.
Ornaments: in Owo, some ornaments, are specially made for use during specific social or religious ceremonies, like funeral, chieftaincy, particularly during the annual Igogo festival. Young girls, who are supposedly virgins, dress mainly in beads to signify purity. Some are worn during the installation ceremony of a new chief otherwise called the ‘Iwuye day’.
Traditional clothe weaving; up to date industrial specialization according to sex maintained in the weaving industry. Men practice the horizontal or belt loom while the women practice the vertical broadloom weaving. It is a common belief in Owo that any man who practices the vertical loom weaving will turn into a woman. There are many types of traditional cloth woven in Owo.
Some are specially made for elders who have reached the Ero age group of approximately (50). It is a symbol of longevity. While others are worn during funeral and those wear them are not expected to kneel down or prostrate an elder. It is used to differentiate the relatives of the deceased from all other participant. There is also a small piece of cloth specially made for young children.
Musical Instrument: Musical instruments sure as drums, rattles (shekere), agogo and others which form a vital part of Owo artistic, are the most commonly used to reproduce all types of music which are given different names according to their sounds in Owo. It is used for entertainment, relaxation during festivals.
In conclusion, Owo history has proven to be highly sophisticated and renowned in its cultural, artistic and historical background. Due to the affinity of the Benin and Ife cultural art, Owo cultural art became exquisite and magnificent.
The cultural significance of Owo objects cannot be over emphasised is it is been used for several purposes, such as rituals and for sacred. For instance, Osanmasinmi is used as a reverence for ancestral shrines, among many others.
Owo history since the 12th century shows ability to comfortably dwell within two very major influential towns in history is very emulating due to its very peaceful co-existence something rare, which build a bridge of peace and unity among the people and of the nation in whole.
• Mrs. Nwokeocha is Chief Curator, National Museum, Onikan. Lagos