The area around the confluence of the Niger and Benue Rivers has been the home to a changing constellation of peoples over many centuries. Today it is where the Igala, Ebira, Idoma, Afo, and Tiv peoples live, among others. The lower stretches of the Benue, a mile wide during the rainy season, have long been both a pathway and barrier: a path of escape, trade, or migration, but a barrier against advancing armies and other intruders. The incursions of the Fulani dislodged peoples from the north side of the Benue, who fled to the south, often with their important ritual objects. They gradually regrouped into new communities and exchanged ideas and forms with their new neighbors. Among these were the Tiv peoples, who expanded from the south and created a cultural wedge between other peoples who had shared histories.
These destabilizing events help explain the fluid identities of artistic traditions that span the Lower Benue and its open frontier with the Middle Benue. Maternal sculptures, often carved with one or more children, were used to safeguard women’s health and fertility. They also protected the earth, which was thought of as female, and the well-being of crops. Their usage throughout this region speaks to their power and efficacy and makes it difficult to assign specific ethnic affiliations to works lacking documentation. Certain distinctive Lower Benue masquerades were also highly mobile, perhaps none more so than the powerful ancestral incarnations in which performers were fully enveloped in burial shrouds and prestige textiles. Specific objects offer the opportunity to tell fascinating stories of meaning, history, and interaction, exposing the forces that have shaped artistic identities over time and space.
Across the Lower Benue region community and individual shrines focus on promoting the health of women and children and the fertility of the fields. The sculptures found inside such shrines took the form of full-breasted females, seated and standing, some with arms raised as caryatids and others with children on their laps or backs. These sculptures could also be displayed and carried during harvest festivals. Their widespread distribution is strong evidence of precolonial networks of production and exchange across both sides of the river from the Lower to the Middle Benue regions. The unsettling impact of historical conflicts, such as the Fulani jihads, also caused communities to move, taking their important objects with them. Our ability to identify particular sculptural forms with specific peoples is complicated by the fact that the places where maternal sculptures were initially documented might not be the same as those where they were originally made or even used.
Whether to incarnate ancestors, enforce social codes, support royal and chiefly authority, celebrate warriors, or to entertain, masquerades were performed throughout the Lower Benue. The circumstances of war, migration, and resettlement since the nineteenth century have meant that masks were and continue to be highly mobile. They could be taken as war booty, bought and sold, adopted with or without accompanying rituals, and altered to suit aesthetic or social requirements of a new community. Reinterpreted by new owners, their meanings changed in response to different contexts and needs.
As cultural boundary crossers, masquerade traditions also retain some traces of where they have been. Their names, origin stories, accompanying musical instrumentation, idiosyncratic dance steps, or special adornments are all clues to their historical paths. The influence of Igbo, Ibibio, Boki, and other Cross River peoples can be seen especially in Idoma masquerades, particularly the whiteface mask so recognizable in southeastern Nigeria.
Dramatic masks were worn in masquerades honoring the royal lineage of the Igala peoples. Unlike other mask styles in the Lower Benue, nearly all of these are helmet-type male heads with highly stylized facial features and elaborate patterns of linear striations. Such masks are likely to have originated in the Middle Benue region around the historic confederacy of Apá (also known as Kororofa or Kwararafa), which broke up in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. This caused several groups to migrate westward along the Benue carrying masquerades with them. Eventually, the masks went on to have a “second career” as emblems of a cosmopolitan Igala dynasty, transplanted immediately southeast of the Niger–Benue confluence in the Lower Benue region. Their facial markings are reminiscent of those on Lower Benue figurative sculptures, variously associated with the Afo, Idoma or Jukun, underscoring the dense network of interrelations in the Lower Benue.
Honored by the praise names “tall ghost,” “hooded cobra,” or “the mask that leans,” ancestral masquerades were performed throughout the Lower Benue. Representing a resurrected ancestor concealed within a textile resembling a burial shroud, these cloth apparitions leap, twist, and twirl either singly or in lines, accompanied by drumming and eerie voice disguisers. The “tall ghost masquerade” can be mapped along the path of the Benue River and has been photographed among the Idoma, Igala, Ebira, northern Edo, Nupe, Yoruba, and non-Muslim Hausa, or Abakwariga, peoples. These masquerades also dispense justice, in matters ranging from settling family disputes to the prosecution of criminals.
Ancestral masquerades most likely originated in the Middle Benue with the Idoma and Abakwariga and moved down the Benue along with migrating populations. They eventually spread west to the Nupe and Oyo Yoruba. Some historians, however, argue the reverse: that such masquerades originated among the Yoruba whose dramatic Egungun textile masquerades are widely known. These ancestral incarnations are a telling example of how an idea can travel.
Crest masks (Oglinye) in the form of human heads carved fully in the round were made for warriors’ masquerades. The tradition derives from the Cross River area, where human trophy skulls were originally worn atop the head. The British banned Oglinye in 1917, but after 1940 they tried, largely unsuccessfully, to use the masquerade groups to assist with local efforts at social control and to help collect taxes and enforce orders. While the masquerade was associated with male warrior associations, the faces on these two crest masks appear intriguingly female. They may reference the roles of women as arbiters of male social status in the community.
This large elephant mask (Itrokwu) is a metaphor for greatness and for the chief’s potential for destructive power. It was performed in an indigo burial cloth, worn as a kind of cloak over other layers of cloth to increase its size. Its dance is “hot,” and it bursts into the compound aggressively, knocking over food-drying platforms, scattering cooking pots and audience members, who remain at a respectful distance. This elephant is highly stylized: the three long extensions at the front of the mask are the animal’s long trunk and tusks, one set of tiny ears is on the crown, and another longer set of “ears” projects from the rear.
Centers for casting bronze and brass objects have been identified across the Benue corridor, from its confluence with the Niger to its upper reaches near the Cameroon border. Metal headdresses, small-scale standing figures, leadership regalia, smoking pipes, and ritual weapons reflect a variety of aesthetic and technical approaches. Most of these objects are relatively unknown when compared with other now-famous, metalworking traditions from southern Nigeria: the ancient Yoruba finds linked to Ife, the royal arts of Benin, and the archaeological objects excavated at Igbo-Ukwu.
The Benue and its connecting waterways provided veritable highways for the movement of people, goods, and ideas, and cast copper objects were among the most portable. It may be impossible to identify where particular works originated, but there are intriguing similarities in the styles and details of Benue bronze and brass objects. Some express a taste for elaborate surface treatments, the attachment of small bells or other jingling pieces, and the inclusion of figurative elements.
The Tiv are relative strangers to the Benue River Valley, having expanded into the region from the southeast (in present-day Cameroon) prior to the nineteenth century. In the process they separated Idoma and Jukun populations, who had once been neighbors, and interrupted what would have been strong cultural continuities between those two communities. The Tiv brought with them their own material culture, but because their worldview was one of great openness to other art forms, their sculptural traditions came to reveal influences borrowed from nearby groups.
The arts of the Jukun-speaking peoples provide a bridge between the Lower and Middle Benue subregions. The Jukun live in dispersed communities on both sides of the Benue, with Wukari, situated south of the river, as their capital. Certain Jukun masks and styles of figurative sculpture resembled those of Lower Benue peoples, who were former neighbors. Similarly, the Goemai peoples who live at the Middle Benue frontier made figurative shrine sculpture with affinities to the Lower Benue.
Wars and migrations experienced over several centuries caused great shifts among Jukun populations. Their displacements and resettlements to locations across the Middle Benue, particularly in the northeast and the southwest, brought them into contact with various peoples. They shared ritual institutions and systems of belief, as well as related objects with these new neighbors, thus forming a complex network of interrelations.
The unusual treatment of the head on Wurbo figures, cantilevered over the chest at a radical angle, and with a flat and frequently rectangular facial plane, is puzzling. Could these figures be wearing a mask to effect their spirit incarnations? It is possible that Jukun horizontal and plank mask genres served as models for the “mask-faces” on Wurbo figures.
This exhibition 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, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), Sidney Kasfir (Professor of Art History, Emory University, Atlanta), and Hélène Joubert (Curator of African Collections, Musée du quai Branly) 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, 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.
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