The 650-mile-long Benue River-the largest tributary of the great Niger-flows across the geographic center of Nigeria. Unfolding as a spectacular journey up the Benue, Central Nigeria Unmasked introduces major artistic genres and styles associated with more than twenty-five ethnic groups living along the river's Lower, Middle, and Upper reaches. These diverse and remarkable artworks include sculptural forms in wood, ceramic, and metal. Among them are full-bodied maternal images; sleek columnar statues; helmet masks with naturalistic human faces; horizontal masks that appear as stylized animal-human fusions; imaginatively anthropomorphized ceramic vessels; and elaborate regalia forged in iron and cast in copper alloys. All of these varied objects had meanings and purposes crucial to Benue Valley peoples as they confronted and resolved life's challenges.
Within this broad regional view the exhibition pauses to highlight distinctive community traditions and the ways that artists have freely innovated within the parameters of local styles. Through their often surprising resemblances, the artworks associated with neighboring peoples can also bear witness to historical communication and interaction across communities. Artistic genres throughout the region were rarely confined to particular peoples, places, or even contexts of use, and their "life histories" were seldom simple. 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.
This exhibition unmasks the fluid and dynamic nature of art and the local spheres of interaction, adaptation, and transformation in which objects have moved. Over the centuries, the Benue River Valley witnessed a confluence of peoples, institutions, and ideas that is only now beginning to be understood as having resulted in one of the major artistic legacies of Africa.
Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley is organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA in association with the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. 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.
CNN recently did a feature on the exhibit. Watch as NMAfA Director Johnnetta B. Cole and curator Karen Milbourne walk you though this amazing show.