Saturday, January 21, 2012

Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley

Where: African Art Museum

When: through February 12, 2012

Apparently, the art of the Benue River Valley has not been much explored by historians or art enthusiasts.  They have turned their attention to areas both north and south of central Nigeria.  This exhibit seeks to redress this imbalance, by displaying many different art works from this region.

The "fluid and dynamic nature of art" makes pinpointing the exact source of this artwork very difficult.  People moved about within the Valley, and took their art with them.  Items found in one place could actually have been created elsewhere.  In addition, when people moved, they influenced the people they came into contact with, so you see similarities between different groups, which also makes the art curator's job more difficult.

I don't really know anything about African Art, so there were times I found it difficult to keep up with exactly what I was seeing - I really needed more than just a lunch hour to see everything.  One of the things I noticed is how often human representations in the art included scarification.  Clearly, this was part of their culture and it was reflected in their art.  Always seems a bit gruesome to me, but then I don't even have a tattoo!

Interestingly enough, for all the hardships involved in positively identifying the place of origin of much of the artwork, they know the individual person who created some of the more modern works.  They include pictures of this person when they have them available, so it seems as if they know either everything about the artist, or nothing at all.

There are several videos of people using the many ceremonial masks on display.  If you have time to watch them, they are quite interesting.  The videos date from the 1970s and earlier, so the quality is not the best, but you get an idea of what a Nigerian masquerade is like.

It's a very large display, and really requires quite a bit of time to see everything.  There are lots of different media on display: clay, stone, iron - the people of the Benue River Valley tuned their hands to many diverse materials.

Verdict:  This show is probably most worth seeing if you have more than a lunch hour in which to do it.  If you're already familiar with African art, you could probably get a lot out of it in an hour, but if you're a neophyte like me, you'll need a bit more time.

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