For anyone who might be closer to Monrovia, California than Monrovia, Liberia between now and late July, I cannot more highly recommend the exhibit Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley on view now at the Fowler Museum at the University of California at Los Angeles. It may be the best exhibit on African art that I have ever had the opportunity to view. Beyond the medium-sized exhibit's incredible assemblage of exquisite masterpieces from dozens of the world's finest collections, the curation itself, with its sleek graphic design, its enlightening text, and especially its multimedia aides, provides an enthralling insight to the history and uses of the beautiful objects displayed in this tremendous show.
The art itself is magnificent. Each display is full of handsome, finely crafted objects from the multicultural Benue River area of Central-Southeastern Nigeria. The exhibit is well-organized to relate the geographic organization of the cultural area, and succinctly conveys the ethnographic hierarchy of the region. The text also commendably discuss both pre-Colonial history as well as frequently referencing how colonial and post-colonial events not only governed the art's creation, but also how the nascent art market itself influenced the production and emergence of the works onto the international stage, as well as its anthropological understanding. This includes frank references of the effects of the Biafran conflict and the questionable provenance into which Benue art in general, and even works in the galleries, came to leave Nigeria.
The exhibit presents a comprehensive range of the several types of work that meaningful juxtaposition is achievable, showing a range of variation across villages, periods, and zones. There is just enough art to take it all in, and the strength each piece compels lingering throughout the chambers, but visitors won't be overwhelmed.
Most of the figures and objects are carved from dark wood, and many of the masks are presented complete with flowing curtains of vegetal strands. The freedom to examine these objects at such close range reveals the beauty of West Africa's native plant fibers and timber, particularly in the large display of massive vertical masks, which must have caused the felling of thick-trunked trees. There are also several magnificent metal works in bronze, and beautiful ceramic pieces.
In many of these works, with the help of accompanying placards, these multivalent morphology of these exotic forms can be discerned and more fully enjoyed. Many of the pieces are not only hybrid representations of man, beast or chimera, but also were worn as a ceremonial mask or headdress. The boundary between anthropomorphic elements and animal features, fused with the ornamental agency of a religious costume, manifest the liminal frontier between worlds that their spirits occupy.
Beyond the gorgeous works on display, with their powerful, otherworldly forms and fine craftsmanship, what makes an already excellent show truly captivating are the two screening areas, which show about 15 minutes of video each, ranging from 8mm reels from the 1960s, to handheld videos from 2010. Brilliantly, the Fowler has posted these online as well.
Although they do nothing more remarkable than straightforwardly present short clips of the masquerades in ceremonial use in Benue Valley villages, these loops are strikingly profound. The displayed pieces, crowned atop full ceremonial garb, become animated apparitions, performing a haunted choreography.
These fantastical forms come to life, gyrating and jittering, mingling among festive crowds, facing off as if to battle, whirling, jerking, and collapsing. "Stunning" is a regrettably overused word these days, but these films take the already mesmerizing works of the gallery and evince the spectral dimensions of their spiritual symbolism. In witnessing the rituals of faith performed and transmitted to wary villagers or nervous adolescents, the viewer, in the company of the surrounding art work of the darkened gallery, is initiated into their belief system.
The videos allow the viewer to go back and forth between contemplating the powerful but dormant objects on display, and then return to the screening areas and photos to see the masquerades alive with their complete regalia and in their original milieux. Thoughtfully, the exhibit also provides maps, locating the specific villages in which the clips were filmed. In this and other ways, the curation successfully executes its determination to provide an understanding of the exchanges, translations, and adaptations within and among this anthropological territory.
As immediate as the unique formal and material aspects of the works are, the complexity of the multiple meanings, purposes, and traditions of art--at other times and contexts thoughtlessly unexplored in the presentation and appreciation of "primitive art" --is thoroughly foregrounded as a contextual supplement to the exhibition. In this way the Fowler's exhibit, its rooms arranged with lovely objects, can, after an hour-long visit, graduate an audience not only more knowledgeable of a particular heritage of African art, but also infused with its spirits.