Monday 31 March 2014

How Cross River Valley connects peoples in art, culture

By Tajudeen Sowole
Colonial and pods-independence administrators may have created geographical boundaries within Nigeria's nation state and beyond, but the natural factor that links peoples remains, so explains a new exhibition, Cross River Valley: Eden of Art and Culture.

Mounted inside the long duration gallery of the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos, the exhibits showcase sculptural works of both religious and cultural values as well as household items of the peoples who dwell along the Cross River, and perhaps Benue River axis of Nigeria. On focus, specifically, are the inhabitants in the present geographical states of Cross Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Ebonyi, Benue as well as a part of the Cameroon Republic.

The D-G, NCMM Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman (speaking), President, Art Galleries Association of Nigeria (AGAN), Chief Frank Okonta; and American diplomat, Rhonda watson: during the opening of Cross River Valley: Eden of Art and Culture…recently.

Historians and geographers may, in the days ahead, debate the reason(s) for grouping the different ethnic nationalities featured in the exhibition as peoples of the Cross River Valley. However, the cultural value of each distinct people is not lost under the Cross River Valley umbrella chosen for the exhibition, so it seems.

Shortly after the Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman and the curator, Mrs Edith Ekunke briefed visitors about the essence of the exhibition - described as "showing for the first time," - it was formally opened to the public.

While the diversity of ethnic identity existed among the inhabitants, relationship, particularly in trading appears borderless. For example, apart from the Portuguese currency known as manila, there were native forms of trade transactions and exchanges among the people. The first set of display at the immediate entrance of the gallery shows evidences of trade relation among the people and perhaps with other neighbours. Two of such objects include. Y Shaped metal piece labeled as currency among the Ogoja people. The metal, which "is worth a penny," would take about "40 pieces" for a man to pay a woman’s bride price.

For the Calabar people, one of the oldest forms of trading involved exchanges otherwise known as barter. An example shows a set of gin bottles dated to1905 and said to "exchanged for 40 copper rods."  

In the same stand with the gin bottles is a mould of salt labeled as. Iyala, also used as currency, particularly for bride price.
 Although the Cross River Valley exhibition does not, specifically, establish inter trade and socio-cultural exchanges between the peoples featured, it was most likely that the waters and their tributaries connected such relationships.  And if trading and cultural relationship existed across the ethnic divides, modern geographical boundaries seem to have done little to complement the healthy inter-ethnic relationship that supposedly existed then.

Dominated by pieces of Calabar and Efik origins of Cross Rivers and Akwa Ibom States, the exhibition also featured objects, which include figural and households from Ebonyi and Benue States. Among such works is a traditional religious figure Ingay, of wood, from Benue State. It is described as "the male pair" of a couple’s figures.

Interestingly, terracotta sculptures, particularly in households such as pots and bedding cut across tribes of the Cross River Valley peoples. Some of these works expose the peoples’ art. For examples, Mmaoibu, a terracotta pot from Ebonyi and Head Rest, also of the same material from Calabar come with attractive aesthetics.

For the royal houses of Cross River Valley peoples, the exhibition also displays what the NCMM tagged Royal Insignia and Costumes.

Viewing one of the exhibits of the Cross River Valley: Eden of Art and Culture, inside the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos.

Usman explained that the contents of the show are from the collection of the Onikan museum. He likened the collections to well-known works of Igbo Ukwu, Nok, Owo, Ife and Benin, disclosing that some of the exhibits were found along the Cross River basin.

He argued that the creative skills of the peoples are of great value in the focus of the show. “It is also to demonstrate the creativity, ingenuity, skills, aesthetic qualities and technological know- how of the people of this area dating back to several decades.”

While the D-G noted that Nigeria’s tangible and intangible cultural heritages are attractive for their “uniqueness, creativity, historical value and the inspiration behind their production,” the new exhibition, he assured, is no less important in the league of the country’s cultural values.

In a country that is struggling to regain its lost glory of museum-visiting culture, it was a delight to see that the Onikan museum has been extending the campaign to the young ones. As the opening of the exhibition was ongoing, pupils from different schools also, coincidentally, chose the same day to visit the museum.

And with more exhibitions coming as the curator assured, the Onikan museum is perhaps on the verge of returning to the glorious days of the past. “The critical thinking and reasoning that has given birth to today’s exhibition will also give birth to future exhibitions that will feature fascinating objects from other geopolitical zones,” Ekunke stated.

She stressed how the exhibition will also educate the people on the cultural value imbed in art as against misconception that art is fetish  “This is to prove that museums are not where fetish objects are kept as people erroneously believe. Let me use the opportunity to encourage Nigerians to take time out to visit the museums across the country because there is much to learn about our history.”

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