Central Nigeria Unmasked: Unit 2: The Middle Benue: Visual Resemblances, Connected Histories

The largest and most ethnically and geographically complex of the Benue subregions is the Middle Benue. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the establishment of Muslim Fulani states and the simultaneous intensification of slave raiding dramatically impacted the diverse peoples living there. These events were followed by further disruptive outside influences in the form of British colonization and the arrival of Christian missionaries starting in the early twentieth century.

Most contemporary ethnic identities within this area crystallized only during the colonial period, because the British needed them for administrative purposes, and local people embraced them out of a sense of belonging. The works of more than ten of these culture groups—with an emphasis on the Jukun, Mumuye, Chamba, Wurkun/Bikwin, Goemai, Montol, and Kantana/Kulere—are featured here.

Distinctive to the arts of the Middle Benue region are sculptures in human form, hybridized human-animal horizontal masks, and remarkable vertical masks that may have functioned as “walking sculptures.” The striking resemblances among these art objects speak to historical relationships and ritual alliances among neighboring 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 figurative sculptures of the Middle Benue region are decidedly different from the favored maternal image of the Lower Benue. They are geometric in approach, and many examples have long held special appeal for modernist artists and collectors, who admired especially the abstraction and dynamic postures of Mumuye figurative sculpture. The highly stylized circular horns of the “buffalo” crest masks of the Kantana and Kulere peoples are also notable for their bold minimalist elegance. This section of the exhibition also includes Super-8 footage of several masquerade genres where performers wore voluminous raffia capes along with animal-human hybrid masks. The films were taken in 1965 and 1970 by UCLA art historian Arnold Rubin, whose fieldwork laid the foundation for this exhibition.