Previewing 'Central Nigeria Unmasked' at the Fowler Museum
“Here will be a group of Mumuye sculptures that burst on the scene in Paris in the late 1960s,” says Marla C. Berns, director of the Fowler Museum at UCLA. She’s in the museum’s galleries, talking about some of the most striking attractions in “Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley,” an international traveling exhibition opening Feb. 13.
Carved of wood by Mumuye peoples of the Middle Benue region, the tall, slim, geometric figures landed on the international art market during the Biafran War, Berns says, referring to the Nigerian civil war that raged from 1967 to 1970. “A lot of objects left the country, partly because of the permeability of the border between Nigeria and Cameroon, when everyone was focusing on the war. Traders took advantage of the confusion and poverty. Some objects may have been stolen; others may have been sold by local people who needed money.”
The sculptures were created for use in rituals, to represent tribal ancestors or powerful spirits. By the time the war began, an influx of Christianity and Islam had deprived the figures of their original meaning, but they started a new life as collectible artworks.
“When they appeared on the market in Paris, people were stunned by them,” Berns says. “An exhibition of them at the Galerie Majestic in Paris in 1968 caused a sensation. Since then, they have been celebrated for their abstraction and inventiveness.”
To read our Arts & Books article on the ground-breaking exhibiton, click here.
Photo: Figure, Mumuye peoples, 19th-20th century. Wood, twine, pigment. Credit: Elizabeth Mann