A Colonial Couple by Thomas Ona

Yoruba, Nigeria

Circa 1940

This respectable European couple by the noted Yoruba carver, Thomas Ona have particularly charming expressions, the mouths carved with the hint of a smile. The lady wears  a simple, belted, short-sleeved summer dress, heeled shoes and a long string of beads. Her partner is in a suit with a shirt and tie, his right hand resting on the back of a chair and his spectacles slung from his neck. The couple both have removable sun hats or pith helmets.

Heights 23.5 cm (9.5 in)

Thomas Ona was fascinated by costume and portrayed both Yoruba and Colonialists with their accoutrements of power. Although his subject matter is innovative the figures are carved in the traditional manner in soft wood using an adze and a knife. The proportions are also long-established as the Yoruba people regard the head as the most important part of the person so it is always many times larger than life-size. However, whereas traditional Yoruba carvings are sculpted from a single piece of wood, Ona's carvings are frequently made from a number of pieces and whereas traditionally vegetable dyes would be used, Ona coloured his sculptures using red and black ink and white shoe polish, often leaving some areas, including the flesh, in the natural wood colour. Although Ona's carvings have sometimes been identified as satirical, Ona told Bascom*, circa 1940, that "his works simply showed how he viewed the world around him" (see biblio), and indeed if one compares the treatment of the facial features, particularly the eyes, to those of ibeji from Ijebu-Ode, one can quite clearly see that they are carved in a traditional manner and are not caricatures.

Thomas Ona was born in Ijebu Ode and moved to Lagos, some 100 or so kilometres away where he made many wood carvings mainly for the British Colonialists and visiting travellers in the early part of the 20th Century. His carvings of Yoruba included traditional roles such as mothers and children as well as new colonial occupations such as policemen and postmen. The colonial carvings were equally varied with many administrators, lawyers, missionaries, even Queen Victoria. His work is now held in Museums the world over.

Provenance:
Lesley Charles Sibun (1907 - 1984)
Granted commission of 2nd Lieutenant on 10 March 1936 to Gold Coast Defence Force

Bibliography:
Africa; Relics of the Colonial Era by Michael Graham-Stewart, pub.1991
The Mlungu in Africa, art from the colonial period 1840 - 1940 by Michael Stevenson and Michael Graham-Stewart, pub. 2003 (see p.99 for an almost identical couple)
Modern African Figurines by William Bascom (Professor of Anthropology, Berkeley) pub.1957
*see Article by Ira Jacknis, Research Anthropologist, Phoebe A Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley
Through African Eyes: The European in African Art, 1500 to Present, by Quarcoopome, pub. 2010, Detroit Institute of Arts

Museum Collections:
British Museum
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow
Fowler Museum at UCLA - hold a similar couple in their collections.
Brooklyn Museum
Phoebe A Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

1394/2755
Enquiries to: leonora@peterpetrou.com
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