Due to its relative isolation, the Upper Benue is distinct from other areas of the river valley. Its rugged, hilly terrain provided shelter from the incursions of invading groups, especially mounted Fulani warriors. The remoteness of the region also meant that local ritual practices were able to persist well into the late twentieth century when they were documented in the field. The arts of eight of the diverse peoples living in this subregion are represented here with a focus on the Cham-Mwana, Longuda, Jen, Ga’anda, ‘Bәna, and Yungur.
The predominance of sculptural ceramic vessels at the center of Upper Benue religious practices represents a marked departure from the wood figures and masks typical of the other two subregions. The highly decorated and anthropomorphized vessels, made primarily by women artists, instead exploit the expressive capacities of clay. Like wood sculpture, ceramic vessels served various ritual functions, including healing the sick, safeguarding hunters and warriors, and activating the presence of various ancestral and protective spirits. Here, as elsewhere, there are striking convergences in the styles and functions of ceramic sculpture mapped among neighboring peoples, revealing the extent of their historical communication and exchange. In a stunning deviation from the norm, monumental male figures carved in wood may be the only vestiges of an abandoned memorial tradition that persisted primarily in clay.
Ceramic vessels were the focus of ritual activities across the Upper Benue region and in most cases they were conceived of as “containing” various kinds of spirit forces. Their shapes often recall pottery used for domestic purposes, but their decoration differs. This is most apparent in the ways that they were modeled to look human and often given heads, faces, arms, and other anatomical details. When molded clay is fired and becomes ceramic, a remarkable change occurs. Thus, pots like people, owe their existence to irreversible transformations. The decoration of the “skins” of both communicated essential messages about social transitions, such as the inevitable progression from youth to adulthood, revealed in the designs inscribed on the bodies of women as scarification and on the surfaces of vessels in emulation thereof. Such decoration also established links between people and the spirits who were called upon to facilitate positive alterations in human destiny.
The figurative pottery produced by peoples living to the west of the Gongola River, the largest tributary of the Benue, was primarily associated with locating, appeasing, or transferring the spirits of disease or the spirits of animals killed in the hunt (or in the precolonial period, men killed in battle). Thes examples below show the kinds of expressive human faces these vessels often have, along with other humanizing features, such as hands, navels, and genitalia. Notice the patterns of decoration on their surfaces, whether raised or painted. They refer to actual programs of body scarification once practiced by the groups who made them, often to mark important social transitions. These parallel features reinforce the linkages between spirit pots and people.
Even in their fragmentary form, the heads broken from figurative ceramic vessels continued to exert power. They were often kept on shrines alongside intact examples to which offerings were made. Such fragments embodied genealogies of spiritual intervention and repeated use. Examples collected early in the twentieth century are evidence that such figurative ceramics have been embedded in the cultural beliefs and practices of communities across the Western Gongola Valley for much longer.
Across the Western Gongola Valley, healing vessels were commonly used in ritual procedures enacted by healer-diviners to transfer the spirits of disease from a patient to a specially made ceramic pot. Typically, a piece of wet clay was circled around the patient’s body to help coax the disease into the clay. The healer-diviner then incorporated the clay into a newly modeled pot, whose features sometimes described the physical symptoms of the illness itself. Firing the pot—and transforming it into ceramic—helped secure the transfer of the disease.
Discarded across the rocky terrain after their use, Cham-Mwana vessels record the incidence of disease. Many abandoned examples, rendered dangerous after diseases were transferred into them, were field collected by British colonial officers beginning in the 1950s, often with notations as to their names and associated illnesses. Many others have been subsequently collected. The forms of most have some human reference and describe the symptoms or aspects of particular diseases they were intended to cure. For example, the sculptural vessels shown here were made to protect an unborn fetus, cure backaches, or end vomiting. Wide-open mouths offer easy and direct access for the transferred spirits.
Spirit Identities in Clay
To the east of the Gongola River, the roles and meanings of figurative ceramic vessels shift to an emphasis on the containment and representation of specific, named spirit deities and of ancestral spirits. The forms and decoration of these vessels are equally distinctive, and they too are modeled to express the visual and conceptual linkages between pots and people. Most dramatically, their “skins” reference the body modifications that help define social identities and responsibilities and the connections between people and their spirit protectors.
Most of the figurative ceramics shown here were housed in shrine enclosures. On behalf of individuals and communities, ritual leaders made regular appeals to the spirits contained in the vessels to secure their positive intervention. By the 1980s many of these enclosures had collapsed or disappeared altogether, leaving their contents vulnerable to theft or destruction.
The Ga’anda produce several ceramic vessel types to contain particular spirit forces, and these are enshrined together in enclosures (literally, “houses for pots”) and maintained by lineage custodians. Every year after the November harvest, ceremonies occur when the Ga’anda renew these shrines and make offerings to protective spirits via their ceramic representations. These pots lead lives like people: their houses need repair, their bodies need washing, and their appetites need satiating. They also look like people, and the raised and incised motifs on the vessels depict patterns of body scarifications on Ga’anda women, as well as tools and weapons carried by men. The identity of each Ga’anda ceramic deity is defined by its distinctive shape and decorative program. Their positive intervention was considered vital to Ga’anda health and well-being.
These large and imposing male figures may have functioned as effigies of dead chiefs, erected during post-burial funerary rites held by a cluster of related Eastern Gongola peoples—the ‘Bəna, Yungur, and Mboi. These rituals were held before the planting season so that the blessings of the deceased could be conferred. Although we know that these rituals were held, nothing resembling these rare and highly muscular male sculptures has been photographed in the Upper Benue region (nor is anything comparable known from the entire Benue River Valley). Rather, these eastern Gongola groups typically used highly rudimentary wood sculptures in pole-like form to represent their ancestors, as shown in the adjacent photo.
The most compelling evidence for the identities of these figures survives in the ceramic vessels made by the Yungur to contain the spirits of deceased chiefs (wiiso). Notice the similarities in the contours of their heads, facial features, caps, and thick elongated necks. These wooden sculptures may constitute a remnant of an abandoned memorial tradition that was preserved in the more enduring medium of ceramic. Available evidence prevents us from ascribing a specific ethnic attribution to them. Rather, it seems plausible that the idea for such effigies circulated in the Eastern Gongola Valley where communities of speakers of closely related languages we know today to be ‘Bəna, Yungur, and Mboi shared cultural practices and their material symbols.
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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