Exhibitions

The Middle Benue: Resemblances, Connected Histories

Overview

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.

 

Ritual Intermediaries in Human Form

Sculptures in human form were used as the focus of ritual activities across the Middle Benue region. The sculptures could stand in for particular ancestors, the collective dead, or spirits of the wild, who were all taken to be human-like in form.  The shared uses for and approaches to creating ritual sculpture are evidence of interaction and communication among the peoples of this subregion.  Important objects could be traded or sold along with the rituals used to activate them. The disruptive impact of slave raiding or religious wars also instigated new responses, including the need for intensified ritual activities to avert just such catastrophes.

Middle Benue figurative styles are decidedly different from the favored maternal image of the Lower Benue. Male and female figures are geometric in approach—especially those made by the Mumuye, Jukun, Chamba, Wurkun, and Montol peoples. Notice their columnar torsos, encircling arms, short staccato legs, minimal facial features, and heads with crest forms that are typically the only elements to distinguish gender. Despite their correspondences, sculptures associated with particular groups exhibit distinctive stylistic differences that reveal local innovation and invention.

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A Myriad of Mumuye Ritual Sculpture

Ritual sculptures associated with the Mumuye peoples served in activities intended to gain protection from drought and epidemic diseases as well as to promote successful harvests. They were known to aid the Mumuye “Master of Rain,” whose power extended to neighboring groups. Sometimes the figures were also used as oracles or to reinforce the status of important elders.

A flood of Mumuye sculptures reached the art market in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and since then they have been much celebrated for their abstraction, inventiveness, and striking variety. Part of their attraction is that they are highly recognizable and at the same time very different one from the other. Female figures are often indicated by large perforated earlobes and male figures by their helmets with high crests and/or flaps. Based on their numbers in collections, Mumuye artists must have been numerous and prolific.

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Chamba Columnar Figures

Single and double columnar figures were used among the Chamba peoples as ritual intermediaries. Their iron spikes were inserted into the ground or a piece of wood. The shape of the head crest distinguishes gender. Such figures were collected by German colonial officers during the early twentieth century, and by the 1960s many of the religious institutions of which they were a part were in decline. They were formerly used as a focal point for sacrifices and invocations performed as a part of men’s ritual associations. Their references were several, from specific kin to the dead more generally to particular spirit forces.

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Middle Benue Ironworks

Iron’s ancient legacy not only provided critical tools of life, such as implements and weaponry but could also serve as a means of communicating with powerful spirit forces. Smiths, some of whom were also smelters, everywhere occupied a marked status within society due presumably to their power to transform raw material into finished metal objects through the use of fire. Across the Middle Benue region—and elsewhere along the Benue corridor—the most important markers of ritual authority were often embodied in forged iron spears, rattles, knives, or wands. Especially distinctive were iron spears festooned with suspended folded rattles or clappers, considered to be the most powerful objects in the paraphernalia of ritual specialists. Such ironworks are highly portable objects, likely to have been traded down the Benue River or produced by resident smiths or regional specialists according to prescribed forms.

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Enigmatic Embodiments: Vertical Walking Sculptures

These large and dramatic mask configurations were used by several neighboring peoples living on both sides of the Middle Benue River—the Wurkun/Bikwin groups, the Mumuye, and the Jukun. They are enigmatic because of their form—some of them clearly cannot be “worn” since the space between their lower planks is too narrow for a person’s head to fit—and because there are no detailed field observations about how they were performed. We surmise that in some cases the performer stood inside the support and balanced the mask on top of his head, holding the lower planks to keep it steady and seeing through a hole or vision port. Others with solid planks or no vision port would have been worn with the wearer’s head turned sideways to see. Still others must have been carried by one or more men. Holes along the edges of the planks show that grasses were attached at the sides and bottom to disguise the wearer.

These objects were likely to have functioned less like conventional “masks” than as “walking sculptures,” appearing during harvest and planting festivals to bestow blessings of agricultural success and community well-being. Among the Wurkun/Bikwin peoples, they also incarnated ancestors who returned to the human world in spectacular ceremonies. It is not hard to imagine the impressive appearance of these towering impersonations—lumbering en masse, slowly forward or sideways, with their heads soaring high above those of the living.

 

 

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Human and Animal Hybrids: Thinking with Masks

Masks worn horizontally on the head are found across the Middle Benue. In their forms and meanings, they fuse references to animals and humans, the wild and domesticated. The resemblances between masks made by the Chamba, Mumuye, Jukun, Yukuben, Kuteb, and Kantana/Kulere peoples are evidence of a set of broadly shared religious ideas. These ideas and their materialization as masquerades must have spread across the region long before the nineteenth century. With few exceptions, the masks performed in rites of passage (particularly the initiation of young men, the individual and collective remembrance of the dead, and the shifting of seasons).

These hybrid masks are grouped to reveal their strong formal commonalities: each has a central helmet, or cap, where the wearer’s head is covered; backward horns; and a frontal snout. They combine shorthand references to the horns of the dwarf forest buffalo (or bushcow) and to the human skull, as well as other to other human features, for example, nose, ears, hair plaits, or scarification markings. Some performed in gendered pairs with the females taking a distinctively different form.

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Watch a video of such masks performing

These six Super-8 films were shot by UCLA Professor Arnold Rubin in 1965 and 1970 in several Middle Benue towns. They have been excerpted from unedited footage housed in the Rubin Archive in the Fowler Museum. Although the masquerades were performed with music, the technology did not allow for simultaneous sound recording. These rare films have never before been shown in a public setting.

 

Mangam Crests, from Bushcows to Antelopes

These masks, called Mangam, were worn in ritual contexts associated with healing diseases, marking rites of passage, or securing agricultural success. The tall and upswept horns refer to waterbuck and reedbuck antelopes (“big” Mangam), and the circular horns stand in for the dwarf forest buffalo or bushcow (“small” Mangam). Artists could vary the form by utilizing the natural branching of tree limbs or by adding a small human face at the end of the snout. Despite their powerful animal aspect, subtle embellishments, like lines of scarification, indicate their hybrid human aspects. Mangam were made by a cluster of peoples living in the escarpments south of the Jos Plateau, located north of the Benue River.

It is not surprising that these boldly proportioned crest masks captured the attention of artists and collectors early in the twentieth century. The large number of masks that exists in collections, along with more than one hundred photographed in the field in the 1950s and 1960s, exhibit a stunning degree of variation.

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Exhibition Credits

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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