Curriculum Resource for Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley
Introduction to the Exhibtion
Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley—on display at the Fowler Museum from February 13–July 24, 2011—is the first major international exhibition to present a comprehensive view of the arts produced in the region, which include some of the most abstract, dramatic, and inventive sculpture in sub-Saharan Africa. The exhibition features more than 150 objects used in a range of ritual contexts, with genres as varied and complex as the vast region itself. The exhibition demonstrates how the history of central Nigeria can be ‘unmasked’ through the dynamic interrelationships of its peoples and their arts.
Diverse and remarkable artworks from central Nigeria include full-bodied maternal images, sleek columnar statues, helmet masks adorned with naturalistic human faces, horizontal masks designed as stylized animal-human fusions, imaginatively anthropomorphized ceramic vessels, and elaborate regalia forged in iron and cast in copper alloys. These objects had meanings and purposes that were vital to the ways Benue Valley groups faced life’s challenges and to the dramatic ritual activities conceived to solve them.
Central Nigeria Unmaskedis designed to take you on a journey up the Benue River to introduce the major artistic genres and styles associated with more than twenty-five ethnic groups living along its Lower, Middle, and Upper reaches. This broad regional view highlights the distinctiveness of particular community traditions and the ways artists have innovated freely within the parameters of local styles. Yet, more importantly, through their often surprising resemblances, artworks associated with neighboring peoples can bear witness to historical communication and interaction across communities, something not often ‘unmasked’ in exhibitions on African art.
Organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA in association with the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, Central Nigeria Unmasked features many works that have never before been on public display. Important loans come from major collections around the world, including those of the British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva, Berlin’s Museum of Ethnology, Musée du quai Branly, and the Fowler Museum at UCLA as well as a number of significant American and European private collections.
After its 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, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), Sidney L. Kasfir (Professor of Art History, Emory University, Atlanta), and Hélène Joubert (Curator of African Collections, Musée du quai Branly) with Gassia Armenian (Fowler Museum at UCLA).
Major support for the exhibition is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director’s Discretionary Fund, Jay and Deborah Last, Ceil and Michael Pulitzer, Joseph and Barbara Goldenberg, 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.
Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley is presented by American Express.
Additional funding for this exhibition is provided by Udo and Wally Horstmann, Edwin and Cherie K. Silver, and Helen Kuhn. The accompanying programs are made possible by Fern Wallace, the Jerome L. Joss Fund, the Yvonne Lenart Public Programs Fund, and Manus, the support group of the Fowler Museum.
Benue River Valley History
The Benue River Valley occupies a geographical and historical “in-between” zone in Nigeria that has been called the “Middle Belt.” It was too far south for Sudanic Arab chroniclers to have visited, and it was too far north for coastal European traders and explorers to have penetrated before the mid-nineteenth century. The peoples and arts of the Benue have thus received less scholarly attention than was the case with the more accessible ethnic groups of Northern or Southern Nigeria.
During the nineteenth century, however, dramatic and disruptive events originating in the north and south shook the Benue River Valley and decreased its isolation. First, from the north, came the Fulani jihad, declared in 1804 by the militant reformer Usman dan Fodio, which continued to be felt throughout the century. The nature of this impact was mediated by geography—the open terrain of the Lower Benue Valley made it susceptible to invading jihadists on horseback, while the remote and rugged uplands of the eastern Middle and Upper Benue regions acted as refuges from the advancing forces of change. The second event originated in the south with the arrival of the British around 1840, who initially sought to explore, trade, and missionize. This incursion eventually led to the establishment of colonial rule in 1900 and the imposition of strategies of control and pacification. It also led to the movement and return of some Benue peoples from mountain and hilltop refuges to the plains. This turbulent century changed the lives of peoples throughout the Benue River Valley in ways that are evident in their arts.
In 1960 Nigeria gained independence and with it came the delineation of states and local government areas. Policies of modernization were also implemented. Running parallel to these changes was the intensification of the work of Christian missionaries and Muslim reformers that had begun in the nineteenth century. The combination of these factors increased pressure on Central Nigerian populations to abandon local religions as well as the many types of ritual objects associated with them. By the end of the twentieth century, many of the arts presented here had disappeared from local usage; others had shifted in form, purpose, or intention; or been destroyed, sold, or stolen.
Knowledge of Benue Arts
The earliest references to the arts of the Benue Valley occur as asides in the writings of late nineteenth-century European travelers and military men. British and German colonial officers added their observations in the early twentieth century, but typically commented on Benue arts only when they collected pieces. More detailed descriptions can be found in the writings of British colonial government anthropologists and in the works of the German collector Leo Frobenius. Important examples of Benue arts entered European museums between the 1890s and the 1930s.
A second major wave of interest occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. An exodus of objects, mainly through Cameroon, took place during and immediately after the upheavals caused by the Nigerian Civil War (1967–1970)—also known as the Biafran War—that was fought in the country’s southeastern region. Emerging onto the international art market, many works entered private collections in Europe and the United States at this time. While we cannot reconstruct the circumstances under which many of these objects changed hands, the African “runners” who sold them (primarily to European dealers) often supplied “ethnic” attributions, which explain in part how certain objects came to be associated with particular peoples.
Fieldwork conducted by specialists since the mid-twentieth century has significantly enhanced our knowledge of the arts and peoples of the Benue region, and a number of objects in this exhibition were photographed and documented in situ. Gaps in what we know mean that the identities of other object types are difficult to determine at this remove in time. The inclination to align specific works with peoples living in the places where the works were collected has persisted into the twenty-first century, an approach that makes no allowances for the complicated genealogies and journeys of specific pieces. While scholars can agree that distinctions in forms or styles do cluster in ways that make ethnic determinations fruitful, even where documentation is thin, the preference here is to avoid assigning fixed attributions when meaningful collections data is absent and instead to identify the localized spheres in which objects are likely to have circulated.