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Putting Pots in Their Place

February 11, 2012

Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley

The National Museum of African Art Smithsonian Institution

Spirit Vessel, Bəna People

This season has been particularly rich for anyone interested in African art.  Four remarkable exhibitions;  Heroic Africa: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Weaving Abstraction: Kuba Textiles and the Woven Art of Central Africa, The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C., Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, Indianapolis Museum of Art, and lastly, Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

All four exhibitions were noteworthy in several respects.  Each, in its own way, presented material in a superbly aesthetic manner. This may seem to some an odd critique. One presumes that art exhibitions will naturally attempt to present work in the most aesthetically pleasing manner possible. However, this is often not the case when showing ethnographic art.  Sadly, ethnographic art bears a heavy political burden that often results in intense pressure to display the material with varying degrees of reference to original cultural context. This political agenda has resulted in some abominable museum installations with walls painted to look like kente cloths, thatch huts constructed over artworks, or even, in the case of the Musee Quai Branly in Paris, faux mud huts into which the viewer must bend and crawl in order to see certain ritual objects.

Not so with any of these exhibitions.  All were beautifully installed with sensitive lighting, well-designed and substantive labels, and excellent, respectful display of sacred and ritual artworks.  And, happily, an absence of distractive interactive gadgets.

For the past two decades this gallery has been promoting African ceramics as a fundamental aspect of African art.  The exhibition, Central Africa Unmasked: Arts of the Benue Valley, masterfully organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA and curated by Marla Berns, Richard Fardon and Sidney Kasfir, places ceramics firmly in the constellation of African ritual arts and ratifies their role as a fundamental, potent and indispensable aspect of the same.

The Benue River is a major tributary of the famous Niger River that loops from its tropical headwaters northwards to touch Timboctou and finally terminate in the oil-sodden delta of southern Nigeria. The Benue River stretches eastward from its confluence with the Niger towards the border with Cameroon. The exhibition, next on view at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, explores the vast Benue River valley, a little-known region of bewildering ethnic composition, diverse ecology and a history of extraordinarily rich traditional ritual life.

Spirit Vessel, Bəna People

Much of the exhibition deals with material and themes familiar to aficionados of African art; masks, wooden figures, masquerade and placation of the spirit world.  What distinguishes this exhibition is the prominent focus on the ceramics of several cultural groups living in the Upper Benue valley.  Part 3 of the lavishly illustrated catalog is a series of essays by Marla Berns, director of the Fowler, on the function of ceramics in the ritual arts.  Her excellent field photos taken during her research in the Benue valley in the 1980s’ illustrate traditions and rituals now largely abandoned.  Many of the vessels she saw in situ are today in various museum and private collections in the West – including Chicago.

The ceramics, while never abandoning the potent metaphor of the vessel, become, through often wild manipulation of the surface, surrogates for actual individuals or spirits. Some are grotesque, fantastic creatures, others finely potted vessels reflecting a sophisticated understanding of form and surface.  The vessels were placed in sacred enclosures – often miniature thatch and basketry ‘huts’ where they were tended and consulted. Some were ceremonially broken, others maintained for generations.  The sculpted vessels become requisite vehicles for addressing the spiritual and metaphysical needs of the community.

Ceramics in the West suffer a certain prejudice peculiar to the West unlike Asia, ancient America and Africa where ceramics existed within the highest realm of art and complimented, on equal terms, all other art mediums.  This exhibition should clearly put to rest the notion that ceramics are the step child of the ritual arts.  They are the ritual arts.

This exhibition continues at the National Museum of African Art Smithsonian Institution until March 4, 2012.

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From → Africa, Ceramics

One Comment
  1. Wonderful!!

    Although… as much as I agree that some displays verge on the annoying (“distracting”) I believe sincerity can play some role. Art world visitors often go to places that are pedestal and white walls galore; which often times reads as sterile, though the work may be bold and beautiful. Transporting the viewer and invariably addressing the space, marking it as “intrinsic” and “sacred” allows for a different connection to the works. That said, I appreciate the perspective. The DDG always displays with a fine eye! I look forward to seeing this show.

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