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.