New York Times Review


Where Gods and Mortals Meet


April 23, 2004


Examining an African Culture in Which Two Sets of Reality Coexist


 I think of the New York City subway as a kind of village on rails, with a constantly changing population of families and eligible singles; workers catching up on business, the news or sleep; vendors hawking everything from food to incense; and entertainers grabbing center stage when they can.

Last week on my way to the Museum for African Art in Queens three young men gave a fantastic in-transit performance.

After a quick introduction, they switched on a boombox and went to it, clapping time as they executed flips, somersaults, handstands and a two-man wheel straight down the middle of the car. Little children shrieked, adults yelped, everyone applauded and money came out. At the next stop they were gone.

A little later, at the museum, I watched a 1972 video of an elaborate religious festival celebrating a spirit named Ohworhu in the Niger Delta region of West Africa. In a village clearing, three young men, dressed in bright masks and white robes, pranced and danced to the sound of drums for the surrounding crowd. Then came an acrobat on stilts, executing gravity-defying pirouettes and backward dips. The audience responded with delight, and he was carried, like a hero, from the field..

The subway performers and the African masqueraders probably shared at least one thought: keep the audience happy and it will keep you happy. But the audience for each was somewhat different. In New York it consisted of global villagers who were also total strangers. In Africa it was made up of family, friends and gods. The stilt walker, high above the earth, danced for the spirits of the air, the three masked men for the water-spirits who lived in the countless rivers and streams of the Niger Delta.

The film is just one small element in "Where Gods and Mortals Meet: Continuity and Renewal in Urhobo Art," an exhibition made up primarily of sculpture at the Museum for African Art. But it is an important component in a show that, as its title suggests, tries to catch the vitality of a so-called traditional African art as it existed in the recent past, while giving at least some sense of radical adjustments in concepts and forms in a 21st-century present.

Africa in this case means a society called the Urhobo, whose origins are uncertain but who share cultural features with several other populations in the Delta region. In the 15th century they were supplying palm oil and lumber to the European market though their colonial contact was oblique, as trade was conducted largely through African middlemen.

Only late in the 19th century, after Africa had been chopped up and distributed among competing European powers, were the Urhobo directly in touch with the West. And the encounter eventually proved corrosive. In the late 1970's petroleum replaced palm oil as the Delta's major export. The Urhobo were instrumental in its production but earned practically nothing for their labor. What was worse, their Delta homeland was devastated by pollution.

This situation was addressed in a memorable exhibition, "Ways of the River: Arts and Environment of the Niger Delta," at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History in Los Angeles in 2002. And in a sense "Where Gods and Mortals Meet" is a supplementary chapter to that show, focusing on a single aspect of its broader picture. Yet it is also a different sort of project, built on a more conservative, one-culture, one-style art historical model but also personal, up-close, even anecdotal in feeling.

It has been organized by Perkins Foss, an American art historian who first visited the Urhobo in 1966 and who has since devoted himself to their culture. The Urhobo have honored him with two chieftaincy titles. And, unsurprisingly, he and the essayists of Urhobo descent writing in the exhibition catalog G. G. Darrah, Peter Ekeh and the artist Bruce Onobrakpeya among them approach their subject in part through autobiography.

It may say something about the depth of their psychological engagement that paradigm-altering changes in Urhobo society over the last four decades are played down in the show. Most of the field photographs in the catalog date from 1972 or earlier. And most of the writing, even descriptions of traditions that have all but vanished, is in the present tense, lending the show a touching sense of history arrested and preserved.

Within that framework the exhibition delivers a substantial amount of information. Urhobo culture, we learn, is, like many cultures, based on fundamental dualities, starting with a division of the universe into two contiguous spheres, the earth and the supernatural realm of spirits and ancestors. Communication with these volatile and mercurial beings is through sacred objects: everyday things that humans almost arbitrarily invest with power, like Duchampian ready-mades and superbly made sculptures of a kind the West calls art.

Some of these sculptures correspond to Western conventions of beauty. A dance mask of a youthful female water-spirit, with its tapering chin, downcast eyes and leaf-shaped facial adornments, is one. Larger-than-life figures of ancestor spirits, their bodies tensed in a half-seated crouch as if in the process of rising, were intended to inspire awe, especially when grouped in altarlike shrines, one of which has been recreated for the show.

The best known Urhobo sculptures, though, are those called iphri, associated with male aggression. Almost all of those in the show are variations on a single type: the image of a squat, barrel-shaped beast surmounted by one or more armed figures. The beast itself is the visual focus. Standing on four stout legs, it consists primarily of an enormous mouth lined with teeth and sometimes equipped with saber-toothed incisors.

It's a wild concept, literally. This isn't art you are meant to get comfortable with. It is art that bites, devours, exhorts and rebukes, that is simultaneously captivating and repellent.

As the Fowler exhibition explicitly stated and the Museum for African Art show implies, an assertive warrior ethos is a dominant feature of many Niger Delta societies. And iphri symbolically encourage and extol it, as surely as battle scenes carved on Greek temples did, or the glamorous violence of contemporary action films does.

But the iphri also have a second, opposite function. They are instruments for controlling types of aggression implacable personal anger, say that have exceeded manageable bounds.

Like much African sculpture, they are examples of a regulatory moral art, designed to shape behavior in the interest of social balance.

The kind of iphri seen in the show are infrequently made now, and ancestral spirit shrines, intact when Mr. Foss first arrived on the scene, are empty or gone. But their forms and the art of moral purpose that they represent survives, recast in the contemporary paintings and prints of Mr. Onobrakpeya, an artist of international stature.

Several pieces by him are in the show, interspersed among related traditional works. One, "Agbogidi," is a richly colored image of an ancestor shrine he encountered in the early 1970's. Another, of a family going to market, is a scene remembered from his childhood. A third, a black-and-white print titled "Emedjo," incorporates images of the jubilant characters known as children-of-the-spirit from the Ohworhu masquerade.

That festival is still staged, though on a far more modest scale than the version seen in the film.

But its images, along with many other features of an older Urhobo culture, live on in the art of Mr. Onobrakpeya and in work emerging from the Niger Delta Cultural Center that he has established to train young artists from the region.

As for the fabulous stilt dancers, they have taken on a life of their own as secular entertainers for hire, sometimes far from Urhoboland itself. And their acrobatic equivalents and possibly descendants are in New York. They may dance closer to the ground and to a different beat in the great rolling villages beneath the New York streets. But they, too, are workers in an old and continuing line: the practice-makes-perfect business of jumping for joy. Children of the children-of-the-spirit, let's call them.