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Nigerian art: Ingenuity meets fervent belief

Marla C. Berns wants to take you on an African river trip. No passport, sun hat or insect repellent is required. You won’t even get your feet wet. Just follow an undulating path through “Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley,” an international traveling exhibition opening Feb. 13 at the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

Surprises appear at every turn: a strikingly abstract buffalo mask carved of wood; an ax with a tongue-like blade that emerges from a metal figure’s mouth; an ominous ceramic spirit vessel with spiky outgrowths designed to heal a nasty skin disease; films of energetic, fabulously costumed masquerades.

The first broad survey of central Nigerian art — organized with the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris — the show offers about 150 sculptural objects made from the late 19th to the late 20th century by members of 25 ethnic groups. Little known beyond a small circle of scholars, the works vary dramatically in style, but all were born of a marriage between artistic ingenuity and fervent belief in the power of ritualistic objects.

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Artists, whose names are rarely known, created the works as “coping mechanisms to secure positive circumstances in life,” says Berns, who heads the museum and the show’s curatorial team. “Objects served as intermediaries between people with requests and custodians in contact with spirit forces. Shrine figures might be asking for good health or rainfall or to speak to ancestors. These were strategies to achieve equilibrium in unpredictable circumstances.”

Ceremonial masks abound, in the form of animal-human hybrids, helmets with naturalistic human features or towering structures known as “walking sculptures” — representations of ancestors that were carried rather than worn. Maternal sculptures from the Lower Benue region, depicting mothers with babies, were kept in shrines and brought out for harvest festivals to protect the fertility of women and the land.

Attenuated, angular figures from the Middle Benue were stand-ins for ancestors or powerful spirits who might come to the rescue in troubled times. A ceramic vessel with an open-mouthed head jutting off to one side of a bulbous body was used by pregnant women in the Upper Benue to protect themselves and their unborn babies.

“What makes many of the genres of Benue River Valley art stand out,” Berns says, “is their unfamiliarity — a kind of ‘shock of the new.’ Many of the object types are new even to specialists of African art. This is especially true of the sculpture from the Middle Benue area, where conceptions of the human form are so inventive and unusual. The scale of the vertical masks is striking and rare as are the representations of their human-like heads. Treatment of the human form in abstract terms has drawn Western artists and collectors to figurative sculpture from sub-Saharan Africa for a century now. However, the especially dynamic and geometric nature of figurative sculpture made by artists from Middle Benue ethnic groups, such as the Mumuye, Jukun, Wukun and Chamba, is particularly impressive.”

Giving viewers an opportunity to get acquainted with a broad array of works and learn how they were used is one big reason for assembling sculptures from far-flung collections and sending them on a tour. After its five-month debut in Los Angeles, the exhibition will travel to the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University and the Parisian museum.

“The Benue River, the largest tributary of the Niger, is 650 miles long,” Berns says. “Central Nigeria is one of the heartlands of early occupation of the African continent. It’s a historically important area, but it has always been a sort of in-between zone.” The artistic legacy of the Benue Valley — too far south to have been well known to Sudanic Arabs and too far north to have been accessible to Europeans before the mid-19th century — has received far less attention than the arts of Nigeria’s southwestern coast, particularly metal, ivory and bead work of the Yoruba, a huge cultural group.

But the agenda of Berns and her fellow curators — Richard Fardon of the University of London, Hélène Joubert of the Musée du Quai Branly and Sidney L. Kasfir of Emory University in Atlanta — involves more than introducing an unfamiliar body of work. “Using the course of the Benue River as a metaphor, the exhibition is designed to take you on a journey that shows how artworks bear witness to history,” says Berns, who did field work in the Upper Benue region in 1980-83. She’s talking about “a dynamic sense of history” that “works against the notion that central Nigerian people lived in frozen communities until the West came and liberated them.”

To that end, the exhibition displays works in geographic sections but also in stylistic groups that explore cross-cultural relationships and interactions. “People moved and took important objects with them,” she says. “They were influenced by what they found in new places. Objects were traded, ideas were shared, every group did not have its particular way of doing things.”

For many years, the movement of central Nigerian artworks took place in the course of internal events. That changed abruptly in the 19th century, when incursions of outsiders hit the Benue Valley with tremendous force, destroying many objects and scattering others far and wide.

Kasfir, reached by telephone at her office in Atlanta, sums up the cultural collision: “The Fulani jihad, an Islamic group, came down from the north. A few years later, British explorers came up the Niger River from the coast, looking for places to have trading posts. The British eventually colonized the area, but both groups were responsible for moving art objects out of their places of origin.”

“The jihadists were fundamentalists who wanted to get rid of the objects,” she says. “They caused people to flee into the hills or from the north bank of the river to the south bank, creating little enclaves of refugees. When people in these kinds of societies fled, they always carried things from their shrines, like ancestral figures.”

“When the British began to take over and colonize, they collected artifacts to put in the British Museum. In the years before World War I, from 1900 to 1914, German collectors were also very active in the region. Both the British and the Germans collected things that had been scattered by the Faluni jihad. They didn’t know that the places where they collected weren’t where the objects originated, so all kinds of things, shrine figures in particular, were mislabeled right from the beginning.”

Labeling mistakes — innocent and intentional — have been perpetuated through the years, creating huge obstacles for art historians. The exhibition’s curators aim to set the record straight, but that can be extremely difficult. Specialists say, for example, that a large group of surviving shrine figures could not all have been made by the Afo, a tiny ethnic group to which the sculptures have been attributed. Histories of a few pieces have been tracked, but those for which no information can be found have been consigned to the broad territory of “pan-ethnic” or regional genres of art.

An exhibition cannot tell the whole story of central Nigerian art, but a big book is in the works. With 16 authors — including Nigerians — and hundreds of field photographs, it will be the definitive scholarly work on the entire Benue River Valley, Berns says.

One essay in the book is a sort of memoir by Arnold Rubin, a UCLA professor and scholar of Nigerian art who died in 1988. He did field work in the Benue River Valley in 1964-65 and 1969-71, concentrating on the Jukun people, and planned an exhibition, “Sculpture of the Benue River Valley.”

Berns, his student and protégée at UCLA, was involved. Work on the show continued for five years after Rubin’s death, but the project lay dormant for a decade while Berns directed the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara. In 2005, four years after she returned to UCLA to lead the Fowler, she learned that the museum in Paris was planning a central Nigeria show and proposed a joint enterprise.

“Part of what I hope to do with the exhibition is to talk about the sensitivities of these pieces having left,” Berns says. “They are no longer in the ritual shrines for which they were made. They have entered the art market. They allow us to share in the artistic creativity of people we don’t know who haven’t entered the canon. But at the same time, they are no longer there. You can lament it, but it seems to be the way of things,” she says. “This allows us to respectfully share the art.”

calendar@latimes.com


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