Power, history and culture in all their glory are on display in “Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley,” on view at the National Museum of African Art through next year. This wide-ranging, international exhibition presents an inclusive view of the arts produced in the region and boasts some of the most abstract, dramatic and inventive sculpture in all of sub-Sahara Africa.
Nearly 150 objects drawn from Nigeria’s Benue River Valley reflect the historic relationship between the region’s people and their art, the results of which include alluringly sleek statues, maternal imagery, striking facemasks and more. The exhibit takes visitors on a journey down the 650-mile-long tributary of the great Niger River, the main river in West Africa, to see the incredible diversity that thrived around the waterway through the spectrum of art, explained curator Karen Milbourne.
Around every turn, the vastness and richness of the area is “unmasked” through statues, bells, masks, ceramic vessels and elaborate regalia used in a variety of ritual contexts. The show introduces visitors to the major artistic expressions that represented 25 ethnic groups living along the river’s lower, middle and upper reaches.
But that’s not the only journey on which the exhibit takes visitors. “Central Nigeria Unmasked” is the brainchild of Arnold Rubin, a researcher of African art at UCLA who spent decades studying the area and conducting fieldwork. His goal was to create an all-encompassing exhibition featuring Central Nigerian artifacts, but with his death in 1988, his dream remained unrealized — until his student, Marla Berns, who today serves as director of UCLA’s Fowler Museum, continued his work.
Today, Rubin’s dream has become a reality — one that brings together historical artifacts made of clay, wood, iron and copper on loan from 47 different private and public collections. Although the medium varies, all of the objects played a meaningful role in the lives of the Benue Valley people.
“This exhibition is a treasure trove of outstanding works of art, placed for the first time within a broader context,” said Milbourne, adding that it “tells the story of how individual artists have experimented with styles and communities have exchanged ideas and objects. It sheds light on a heretofore little-understood but long-admired art-producing region.”
One of the centerpieces is a giant elephant mask. Described as a metaphor for greatness and for the chief’s potential for destructive power, the mask, which required four gallery staffers to lift it into place, was clearly used to exude power. It was found with an indigo burial cloth worn as a kind of cloak over other clothing layers to increase a person’s size. The regal mask is showcased on a raised platform with shadows of rippling water on the dark wall behind it — encapsulating the imposing mystique it must have lent to the person wielding it at ceremonies.
On display from the Upper Benue are intriguing ceramic healing vessels presumed to be created by the Chamba people and believed to cure illness. Nearby, elaborately carved wooden staffs commissioned by elders are adorned with human forms, including men on horseback, women seated on stools and full-bodied maternal figures. These staffs are a rich accompaniment to the other artifacts and stand as a strong yet silent symbol of the communal reverence for the region’s traditions.
All throughout, dynamic videos demonstrate how objects similar to the ones highlighted in the exhibit are still creatively used in the area today. Milbourne said she is particularly spellbound watching videos of the ancestral mask. “The way figures elongate and drop to the ground and change form — I can watch [the video] for hours,” she said.
Also, a learning space outside the exhibit offers an artistic outlet for children and families to record their impressions of the exhibit. Colored drawings by students line the walls as evidence of the show’s aesthetic appeal and inspired history.
Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley
through March 4
National Museum of African Art
950 Independence Ave., SW
For more information, please call (202) 633-4600 or visit http://africa.si.edu.
About the Author
Fresia Cadavid is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.