The fluid nature of art in Nigeria's Benue River Valley comes alive at Stanford

Complementary programs include New York Times art critic Holland Cotter discussing the impact and influences of non-Western art in the American art museum, and a Nigerian "Nollywood" film festival.

The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford is shedding light on a little-known region of central Nigeria with an exhibition of artworks assembled from collections around the globe.

Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley takes the viewer on a journey to discover how communities survive and thrive along this remarkable river. "The exhibition enables you to experience the different ways in which the Benue River Valley environment, culture and different ethnic groups inform each other, resulting in extraordinary art that inspires each of us," said Connie Wolf, the director of the Cantor Arts Center.

The exhibition gives a comprehensive view of the arts along the river that flows across the center of Nigeria, joining the Niger River on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. Central Nigeria Unmasked, on view through Oct. 14, reveals the arts and cultures of diverse peoples who are far less known and studied than the majority populations in the country's northern and southern regions. 

Organized in sections that unfold as a journey up the 650-mile-long Benue River, the exhibition presents artistic forms and styles associated with more than 25 ethnic groups in three regions – lower, middle and upper river. More than 150 objects embody meanings and purposes crucial to Benue Rive Valley peoples as they confront and resolve life challenges and rites of passage such as birth, initiation, marriage, illness and death.

Works include maternal figures, sleek statues, anthropomorphized vessels, elaborate regalia, masks with naturalistic human faces and masks that appear as stylized animal-human fusions. Vintage and contemporary film footage in the galleries captures the dynamic and complex tradition of masquerade that is still practiced today along the Benue. Said Wolf of the multimedia installation, "It is wonderful that the exhibition allows us to understand the works in their original context through the use of photography and videos taken in the different communities."

Stanford has a long history of presenting African art at the Cantor in cooperation with the Center for African Studies, most recently with the reinstallation last fall of the permanent galleries devoted to African art. Tom Seligman, who oversaw the reinstallation and is now the director emeritus of the museum, pointed out that there are a handful of central Nigerian objects in the Cantor collection, but nothing of the quality and importance of the objects assembled for Central Nigeria Unmasked.

One of Seligman's personal favorites is the maternal figure with three children done in carved wood and metal at the beginning of the special exhibition. Attributed to various peoples before finally earning the simple identifier "lower Benue," its exquisite craftsmanship and maternal power make it a masterpiece. 

Another standout in the exhibition is a group of seven Mumuye figures sculpted in wood. They measure roughly 2.5 to 4 feet high and are installed together in a row as sentinels protecting against drought and epidemic.

First and last

In the catalog accompanying the exhibition, Marla C. Berns, director of the Fowler Museum at the University of California-Los Angeles and co-curator of the exhibition, declares that Central Nigeria Unmasked is a "first" three times over: the first to focus on the peoples of Benue River Valley, also known as the "in-between zone;" the first to feature sculptural traditions never before seen in public exhibitions; and the first to present unpublished field research, field photographs and films by international scholars.

Wolf concurs. "This impressive exhibition is truly the first of its kind to bring together important scholarship while providing the chance for museum audiences to experience the breadth of artistic and cultural practice from more than 25 different communities who all live along the Benue River," she said.

The Cantor Arts Center is the last U.S. stop for the exhibit, following presentations at the Fowler Museum, which organized it, and the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The final venue is the Musée de quai Branly in Paris. The carefully assembled works will then be returned to their collectors.

Special programs

Co-curator Marla C. Berns will speak about the exhibition tonight (Wednesday, May 16) at 6 p.m. at the Cantor. Her talk is free and open to the public.

On Thursday (May 17), Pulitzer Prize-winner and New York Times art critic Holland Cotter will present the Wilsey Distinguished Lecture, titled "Critical Consciousness: Art and the World," at 6 p.m. in Annenberg Auditorium, Cummings Art Building. His lecture is also free and open to the public.

Cotter, known for his insightful writing, has a particular interest in non-Western art. He just completed a series of articles on African art and culture for the New York Times.  "We invited him to speak at Stanford as part of the annual Wilsey Distinguished Lecture series at the Cantor Arts Center because of his important perspectives about the role of African art in its specificity as well as in the larger international context," Wolf said.

Switching from lecture to film, a Nollywood film festival is being presented on Saturday, June 9, starting at 11 a.m. "Nollywood" is a nickname for Nigeria's booming film industry, which is the second-largest producer in the world, behind India's "Bollywood" and ahead of Hollywood.

Kicking off the festival and providing Nigerian filmmaking context is Welcome to Nollywood by Stanford assistant professor in documentary film Jamie Meltzer. Following Meltzer's documentary will be several films, short and long, in various genres, put together by guest series organizer and Nigerian filmmaker Chike Nwoffiah. Nwoffiah will act as host for the day and lead discussions between each film.

Docents will offer tours of Central Nigeria Unmasked on Thursdays at 12:15 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. for the duration of the exhibition.

International Museum Day

Friday (May 18) is International Museum Day. The Cantor Arts Center is recognizing the day by offering a 10 percent discount in its store and by encouraging visitors to share their Cantor experiences via the museum's Facebook and Flickr pages.

Anna Koster, Cantor Arts Center: (650) 725-4657,

Robin Wander, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,