Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley is organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA in association with the Musée du quai Branly, Paris. After the world premiere at the Fowler Museum, Central Nigeria Unmasked will travel to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center, and the Musée du quai Branly. The exhibition is co-curated by Marla C. Berns (Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director, Fowler Museum at UCLA), Richard Fardon (Professor of West African Anthropology and Head of the Doctoral School, SOAS, University of London), Hélène Joubert (Curator of African Collections, musée du quai Branly), Sidney Kasfir (Professor Emerita of Art History at Emory University, Atlanta), and with Gassia Armenian (Curatorial and Research Associate, Fowler Museum).
Major support for the exhibition is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director’s Discretionary Fund, Ceil and Michael Pulitzer, Jay and Deborah Last, Joseph and Barbara Goldenberg Estate, Robert T. Wall Family, and Jill and Barry Kitnick. Major funding for the publication is provided by The Ahmanson Foundation with additional support from the Ethnic Arts Council of Los Angeles. The planning phase of this project was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
This exhibition and its publications are dedicated to the memory of Arnold Rubin, Art Historian at the University of California, Los Angeles who conceived this project in the 1980s, through his identification of major collections and objects. Conservators and authors with this project are indebted to Arnold Rubin, his original scholarship and interpretations.
Nigeria, Arts of the Benue Valley
FROM TUESDAY 13th NOVEMBER 2012 TO SUNDAY 27th JANUARY 2013
- East Mezzanine
- Collections ticket
- Marla C. Berns, Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director, Fowler Museum, University of California, Los Angeles, Chief Curator
- Richard Fardon, Professor of West African Anthropology and Head of the Doctoral School, SOAS, University of London
- Hélène Joubert, Curator of African Heritage, musée du quai Branly
- Sidney Kasfir, Professor Emerita of Art History at Emory University, Atlanta
Events related to the exhibition
visits, catalogue and events related to the exhibition
about the exhibition
This exhibition is the first to present a comprehensive overview of art produced by the many tribes inhabiting the region of Nigeria defined by the great Benue River, the most important tributary of the Niger. The exhibition aims to offer an accurate perception of the dynamic arts of this region, which is the cradle of some of the most spectacular art forms produced in sub-Saharan Africa.
Presenting more than 150 objects – sculptures and masks in wood, pottery and metal drawn from public institutions and private collections from the United States and Europe – the selection invites the visitor to discover the artworks of this fairly unexhibited or unstudied region. Following the course of the Benue River in the footsteps of the first explorers, the exhibition places the objects in their geographical context and explores their history and the connections between the works of the different regions of the Benue valley.
Fluidity of artistic identities in Lower Benue
The region of the Niger-Benue confluence has for centuries attracted many populations, especially north of the Benue, who generally brought with them their ritual objects. The Igala, the Ebira, the Idoma, the Afo and the Tiv are a few examples of such populations.
These have gradually merged to form new communities, thus enabling an exchange of artistic styles and ideas with their neighbours. For example, the Tiv have spread from the south, creating a cultural link with peoples with whom they share the same history. Maternal images which protect human and agricultural fertility are a common cultural trait between the peoples of this region.
The Middle Benue : visual similarities and a common historical heritage
The Middle Benue is the largest region of the whole of Benue and the most complex in terms of ethnic identity. The exhibition presents the works of around ten of the different cultural groups in this region: the Jukun, the Mumuye, the Chamba, the Wurkun/Bikwin, the Goemai, the Montol, and the Kantana/Kulere.
The establishment of the Muslim Fulani States in the first half of the 19th century and the increase in slave trafficking had a dramatic impact on the various local populations. These events were followed by new external upheavals provoked by British colonisation and the arrival of the Christian missionaries at the beginning of the 20th century.
The works are representative of artistic styles indigenous to Middle Benue and are characterised by horizontal masks in hybrid form (half-man, half-animal), as well as anthropomorphic vertical masks. Much statuary evokes ancestors, the dead and spirits of nature, associated with medicinal properties. The astonishing similarities between these different works of art reflect the sharing of a common history and ritual alliances established between neighbouring peoples.
The Upper Benue: the capacity of clay for expression and ritual
The relative isolation of the Upper Benue distinguishes this region from the others as its undulating, hilly terrain provides the local populations with protection from raids by rival populations, particularly Fulani horsemen.
The fact that this region is so distant also explains why certain local ritual practices are still continued. Here examples of the artistic production of the eight different groups of this sub-region are presented (Cham-Mwana, Longuda, Jen, Ga’anda, Bena, Yungur…). The predominance of ceramic vessels at the centre of the religious practices of the Upper Benue marks a clear break with the figures in wood and masks which are typical of the two other sub-regions.
Just like the sculptures in wood, the earthenware vessels served various ritual purposes such as curing the sick, protecting huntsmen and warriors and also activating the presence of various ancestral and protective spirits. Here, as elsewhere, we may note astonishing convergences in the styles and functions of the ceramic sculptures identified in several neighbouring groups, which reveals the extent of their communication and historical exchanges.