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The Arts Of Benue

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The Arts Of Benue

The Niger River’s principal tributary is the Benue River, itself a major waterway that runs from east to west across Nigeria’s Middle-Belt. It is the cultures of the people of this region that are celebrated in a special travelling exhibition. Stephen Williams reports from Paris.

Drawing to a close at the Museum Quai Branly in Paris on 27 January is a special exhibition: Central Nigeria Unmasked: The Arts of the Benue Valley. The exhibition began halfway around the world, across an ocean and a continent, on the US west coast at the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, where it was first shown between February and July 2011.

It then moved on to Washington DC, to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art where it went on show from September 2011 to February 2012; then from May to October 2012 it was exhibited at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, before moving to the French capital and the Museum Quai Branly in mid-November 2012.

Divided into three broad categories, the Lower, Middle and Upper Benue, the Quai Branly chose to lay out the exhibition (as the other museums did) just as the 650-mile-long Benue River flows across Nigeria. In fact, the river starts in the Adamawa Plateau in northern Cameroon, from where it flows west, and through the town of Garoua and the Lagdo Reservoir, into Nigeria south of the Mandara Mountains, and on to Jimeta, Ibi, and Makurdi before meeting West Africa’s longest river, the Niger, at Lokoja.

The visitor is introduced to around 30 ethnic groups living along the Benue River, and artworks in wood, ceramic, and metal that they have produced. What makes this exhibition especially interesting is that while it represents a wide repository of African artistic legacies, they are generally little known compared to the arts of Northern and Southern Nigeria. Indeed, this region of Middle Nigeria has been squeezed, and to an extent isolated, from above and below. The Fulani jihadist movement from the north and the European incursions and slave-trading activities from the south meant that the Benue was betwixt and between two powerful influences.

Nevertheless, the objects displayed – which include maternal images, tall statues, helmet masks with naturalistic human faces, horizontal masks that have stylised animal-human aspects, ceramic pots designed to contain various spirits, and elaborate regalia forged in iron and cast in copper alloys – all have rich stories to tell. The curators are candid in admitting that a lot remains unknown about the peoples, arts and culture of central Nigeria, although academic effort has been made to unravel the styles that have evolved over the centuries.

Due to cultural interchanges and mutual influences, like the Benue River itself, the region has always been in a state of flux. The catalogue specifically mentions that the inclination to assign specific works with peoples living in the places where the artefacts were collected “has persisted into the 21st century”, an approach that makes no allowance for the complicated genealogies and journeys of those pieces.

Much of the research underpinning this exhibition borrows heavily on the legacy of the art historian Arnold Rubin who, from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, carried out extensive fieldwork and was planning a major exhibition of the region’s art works when he died in 1988. The curators have dedicated this travelling exhibition to his memory. Rubin’s intentions, according to the director of the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles (and Rubin’s literary executor), Marla C. Berns, was that the planned exhibition would show how the art forms and styles of the region’s peoples provided evidence for their history.

Berns told New African that Rubin had collected a number of artefacts and films for the exhibition, as well as photographs for the catalogue he was writing, and that he always attempted to collect two sets of comparable objects in the field, one to be deposited in Nigerian museums, especially the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Jos, and one that was donated in large part to the Fowler Museum.

Regrettably, the exhibition only features those pieces that have entered private collections and public museums in Europe and the USA, none from the continent’s collections. While many important examples of Benue arts were amassed by European museums between the 1890s and 1930s, due to the interest of European colonial officers and military administrators, a second wave of interest occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This was during the Biafran War when many pieces arrived in the West, mainly via Cameroon, through African dealers.

Close to the confluence of the Niger and Benue Rivers, where in the rainy season the Benue is about a mile wide, are where the Igala, Ebira, Idoma, Afo, and Tiv peoples live. The river itself acts as a natural barrier and indeed the Fulani invasions dislodged people from the north side who fled to the south, often with their important ritual objects. Maternal sculptures, often carved with one or more children, were used to safeguard women’s health and fertility. They also protected the earth, which in African thought is a female, and the wellbeing of crops.

This is where the visitor to the exhibition begins, and where the stunning seated mother figure with children can be viewed, undoubtedly a masterpiece. Alongside are cast copper alloy head crests, bells, staffs and figures that testify to the diversity of arts from this region. Defining where the Lower Benue ends and the Middle Benue begins is not easy; the artistic styles interact and have commonalities. What can be said is that the preferences for maternal images seem to fall away. Speaking to Professor Richard Fardon, who teaches West African Anthropology at the School of Asian and African Studies in London (he co-curated the exhibition), New African learnt that there is a shift away from the moulded forms of sculpture of the Lower Benue towards subtractive (or carved) wooden columnar figures.

Fardon’s particular speciality is the Middle Benue where he spent two years in the 1970s conducting field research towards his doctorate. “The Middle Benue region has a mixture of columnar sculptures and horizontal masks… but what the exhibition’s organisation tries to do is show the variety and differences as well as similarities of neighbouring peoples,” Fardon explains. “The way that styles evolved demonstrates that these people had imagination. It does away with the very persistent idea in the European imagination that people belong to tribes and tribes have different and distinct identities and styles.”

Turning his attention to the horizontal masks that are found in the region, Fardon made reference again to the imagination that lay behind these objects, often incorporating human and animal references.

“The striking resemblances among these masks,” as the catalogue points out, “speak to historical relationships and ritual alliances among neighbouring peoples. All across the region, wooden figures served as intermediaries in rituals aimed at healing and protecting the community, especially from such crises as epidemics, drought, and warfare. And, horizontal and vertical masks were used in performances associated with funerals and remembering the dead, initiating youth, ensuring or celebrating a successful harvest, or healing the sick.”

The final part of the exhibition deals with the Upper Benue, a region that because of its mountainous terrain provided sanctuary from the incursions of invading groups, both slavers and mounted Fulani warriors.

The arts of eight of the diverse peoples living in this sub-region are represented with a focus on the Cham-Mwana, Longuda, Jen, Ga’anda, ‘Bena, and Yungur.

Here we find the ceramic vessels central to Upper Benue’s religious practices. Perhaps the lack of wood was key to these pots being used, but they are intricately decorated vessels made primarily by women artists but representative of both male and female figures. They served various ritual functions, including healing the sick, safeguarding hunters and warriors, and activating the presence of various ancestral and protective spirits that resided within them.

Here, as elsewhere, there are striking convergences in the styles and functions of these ceramic sculptures among neighbouring peoples, revealing the extent of their historical communication and exchange. Fowler Museum’s Marla Berns, an expert on this region, was on hand to explain that the decorations on female pots represented scarification patterns that women invariably have on their bellies, while men were often represented carrying tools or weapons.

She summed up the exhibition by saying: “I think what all of the arts share is the ways in which people find solutions to life’s challenges; so everywhere you go you have people that are concerned about healing the sick, or making sure that the crops will grow, or making sure that people become proper citizens of their particular community, and these objects mediate these kinds of challenges and relationships. That’s what is common. However, the way they do it and the forms they take, is very particular to a specific culture. But then when you see that people that live near each other share the same forms, you realise that they are sharing those same ideas that underlie the forms they make.”

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