Friday, 23 November 2012


Standing figure
PARIS - Awe and surprise were probably the most common expressions on viewers' faces during the recent opening of “Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley”, a wide-ranging exhibition that has traveled from the United States to the Quai Branly Museum here.

Through stunning objects, the show takes museum-goers on a “journey” up the 650-mile-long Benue River and introduces the “major artistic genres and styles associated with more than 25 ethnic groups” living along the river’s lower, middle and upper reaches.

The Benue River Valley is an immense region that stretches from the heart of Nigeria to the eastern frontier with Cameroon, and its ethnic groups have long produced remarkable and varied sculptures that collectors have snapped up over time. The current exhibition is derived from both public and private collections in Europe and the United States.

The pieces on display range from objects that look quite post-modern in their abstract forms to sculptures that are so perfectly balanced and intricately designed that they nearly seem to breathe.

Viewers get to admire towering wood statues, maternity figures, helmet masks with “naturalistic human faces”, horizontal masks that seem to fuse human and animal forms, and elaborately forged iron vessels, among other items.

The materials used include wood, metal and ceramic, and all the objects reflect certain meanings and uses. The show makes a point of highlighting community traditions and how current events influenced the pieces produced.

Masks in the exhibition
“Artworks could be made by one group and used by another where meanings might change; stylistic traits could be shared across cultures; and the places where objects were collected may not have been where they were created,” according to the curators.

Some of the most distinctive items in the exhibition are the ceramic artworks from the previously remote upper Benue region. The relative isolation of this area meant that local traditional practices lasted into the late 20th century, and their ceramic vessels served different ritual functions, such as safeguarding hunters and healing the sick.

The curators say that every effort has been made to ensure that the collections were attained by legitimate means, but some viewers will naturally wonder why so many spectacular African works of art “reside” in the West.

“The works of art … displayed in this exhibition were selected with great care and precision by a small group of eminent specialists, who benefited from a lengthy period of intense dialogue and deliberation followed by exhaustive efforts to secure appropriate works of art and to provide documentation,” said Stephane Martin, president of the Quai Branly Museum.

The poster
The exhibition grew out of a special interest by researchers at the Fowler Museum, at the University of California. Marla C. Berns, head of the curatorial team, said the show is a tribute to the work done by art historian Arnold Rubin who did extensive fieldwork in the Benue River Valley in the Sixties and early Seventies.  Rubin wanted to curate a major exhibition but died before he could achieve his dream.

“As Rubin’s literary executor, I had always intended that the project be completed, both as a tribute to him and his groundbreaking scholarship and observations and because I believed, as he did, that the region’s arts were deserving of such comprehensive treatment,” Berns said.

The Fowler Museum first hosted the exhibition in 2011, and since then it has travelled to Washington and Stanford. The Paris show is a result of a partnership between the Quai Branly and the Fowler Museum’s curators.

"Although much remains to be unmasked in our study of the peoples, arts and cultures of Central Nigeria, it is our hope that our efforts to expose new audiences to the artistic wealth of this region will arouse a wider interest and provoke further scholarly investigation," Berns noted.
The exhibition runs until 27 January, 2013.