Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Other Nigeria

Almost all the news out of Africa seems to be disaster reporting of one sort or another. We, who are not Africans, tend to see the place as a continent full of calamities. Those of us of the Episcopalian and Anglican persuasion see Nigeria in terms of sometimes violent tribal and sectarian tensions, Western corporate exploitation, corruption, email fraud schemes, and lingering post colonial resentments.

Perhaps it is time to take a different look at Nigeria, a very ancient country with an old and rich culture that had a great impact on cultures in the New World. Here is just a small sampling.

Nok Culture circa 300 - 100 BC

One of the earliest known cultures of Nigeria is the Nok culture, named by archaeologists after a town near the excavation site. Little survives of this culture beyond terracotta figures like those illustrated below found in river flood deposits. Scholars speculate that they could be based on sculptures in more perishable wood. Very little is known about this culture. There are other cultures from the same region and time period that are just beginning to become known to archaeologists and scholars. But the political and military situation in so much of west Africa makes field work difficult to impossible.

The Kingdom of Ife circa 1000 - 1500

The city of Ife plays a very large role in Yoruba mythology. The world began in Ife, and the gods taught humankind the civilizing arts and crafts there. In 1938, archaeologists digging near the compound of the Oni (king) of Ife found a series of brass and terra cotta heads of astonishing naturalism and idealized form. These are assumed by most scholars to be portraits of rulers, though very idealized. They are all shown in the prime of life with an aura of calm detached self-possession. The lines on some of them may portray tatoos or scarification.

Ife portraits are still surfacing. This terracotta head was found at a site called Obalara in 1971.

The Kingdom of Benin, 1440 - 1897

The city of Benin was the center of a great empire built on trade. By the 15th century, Benin emerged as preeminent among all the Yoruba city states. They were very expert metalsmiths in brass, bronze, and iron. Most of the art, especially in metals and in ivory, was reserved for the exclusive use of the Oba (king) of Benin, and was made by artists in his direct employ. The subjects are beautifully stylized representations of the king and his court and soldiers. What mattered was not the individuals, but their sacred office. Works of art from Benin are the most famous and celebrated to come out of Nigeria. The British military destroyed Benin in a punitive expedition in 1897, scattering the art of its royal court to museums around the world.

Yoruba Culture.

A large majority of the Africans who were forcibly exiled to the Americas as slaves were Yoruba, and the rich and complex Yoruba culture still shapes much of life in the New World. Practices like Vodoun (Vodoo) and Santeria come out of the old Yoruba religion.
Below is a pair of doors carved by a celebrated sculptor by the name of Olowe in 1910 for the palace of a Yoruba king. It records the visit of British Travelling Commissioner for Ondo province, Captain Ambrose visiting the Ogoga (king) of the city of Ikere in 1897 shortly after the punitive expedition against Benin. The King wears the tall crown on the left and the Captain is borne in a litter on the right.

I sometimes wonder if even the memory of traditional African cultures will survive. Frequently, the demand of foreign collectors leads to widespread looting and destruction of African heritage sites, especially of the Dogon and Bamana in Mali. The black market in art and antiquities loves poverty and political instability. That's why it's flooded with artifacts from Central America, Iraq, and Africa. Other times, foreign demand is all that's supporting the continuation of some African art and craft traditions. Colonialism and slavery were catastrophes for native African cultures, but they somehow survived, even if in fragmentary form. I'm not so sure they will survive the fierce competition for souls on the continent between the world's 2 great imperial religions, Christianity and Islam. Already, so much of native African religion and culture has been ground to powder between those 2 millstones.


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Remarcable works of art!

Leonardo Ricardo said...

Wonderful...thank you.


Grandmère Mimi said...

Counterlight, you have one terrific blog. I wish I had time to visit more often. About every two weeks, I'm strongly tempted to give up blogging and just visit around other blogs. I think life might be sweeter.