With Perkins Foss, Urhobo Culture Goes On World Stage


From Molara Wood,



[Nigerian] Guardian News; Sunday, April 25, 2004


Dr Perkins Foss was an active participant at the last conference of the Urhobo Historical Society (UHS), held in London in November. Addressing the Youth Forum, the Urhobo scholar had declared that: "Tradition is what someone would like to believe the past existed as". To him, it is more important for people to have a real sense of their past and history.


Dr Foss was talking about the need to preserve culture, an integral part of which is the passing on of history to younger generations. Outlining the importance of creating an awareness of the nature of art and history, he talked his audience through ways of awakening in children a fascination for the past. Of the youths introduced in this manner, Perkins Foss believes that a small fraction will go on to develop an active passion for history in adulthood, and could even become historians.


He supported his argument with slides of some of the famous Urhobo photographs he has taken over the years. One picture taken in 1971 shows the late Chief E Oyovwikefe, grandfather to an official of the UHS. The chief, whose praise name was Ekiragbera, stands next to a figure of war passed down to him by his grandfather; the figure therefore connecting with 200 years of a family's history.


Another photograph from the 1970s shows a stilt-dancer performing at Racecourse, Lagos. 25 years after taking the picture, Perkins Foss again went looking for the man, who had also danced for the then Princess Elizabeth on her first visit to Nigeria in 1956. According to Foss, the picture represents "a whole sweep of history".


In a room full of Urhobos of all ages, Dr Foss was able to shed more light than any other person present on another image, which depicts the practice of esakpogidi. This centres around rituals on attainment of a fourth generation status in Urhobo culture. The boys in the picture are dressed in extremely sacred clothing symbolic of the killing of their grandmother. Described by Foss as "six generations being re-memorialised", the rituals involve an avoidance relationship between the great-grandparent and the fourth generation child, who are not expected to see each other. The photograph led to much discussion and captivated all, even the very young. Dr Foss had gone some way to prove his point.


An American, Perkins Foss works actively for the promotion and preservation of Urhobo culture. His works on the Urhobo peoples, art and religion have been published in academic journals and publications; he has presented papers at universities, museums and conferences all over the world on the subject. Also at the UHS conference was the celebrated Urhobo artist, Bruce 'Eni' Onobrakpeya to whom Foss concedes the traditional Urhobo courtesy, the migwo.


Perkins Foss was jokingly introduced at one point during the conference as: "The first human being born to full Urhobo parents to come out completely white". Among the Urhobo, he is affectionately known as Oyiboredjo, meaning "White Man of the Spirits". He bears the chieftaincy title Unugbedjo of Evwreni; and speaks fluent Urhobo, the finer points of which he continues to learn, with the help of Urhobo scholars including G.G. Darah.


After leaving Yale's Dartmouth College, the young Perkins Foss came to Nigeria for the first time in 1966 with the US Peace Corps. On the strength of an African Art course taken in college, he had exaggerated on his application form for the Peace Corps by describing himself as an expert in African Art. It worked, and he was posted to the Nigerian National Museum in Onikan, Lagos. It was K.C. Murray, then curator of the museum, who suggested to Foss the idea of going among the Urhobo. He went and stayed for a month. The rest, he says, is history.


On his return to the United States in 1968, Perkins Foss wrote his PhD thesis on the Art of the Urhobo People. With a two-year grant from the Ford Foundation, he returned to Nigeria and lived in Ughelli for 16 months, visiting as many villages as possible. People had been wary of his presence at first, thinking he had come like other whites for oil. But they gradually saw that he was different and warmed to him.


And so began the Oyiboredjo's long-term involvement with the Urhobo. He compiled an extensive record and photographic archive of Urhoboland before the disruptions of the oil boom completely altered the society and economy. On frequent visits to the area over the past three decades, Foss also helped document the changes in art and way of life of the Urhobo. That life's work now culminates in a major new exhibition: Where Gods and Mortals Meet: Continuity and Renewal in Urhobo Art. The exhibition opened at the Museum for African Art in New York on April 9.


The downside to the oil wealth of the Niger Delta has been a steady decline in the rural economies of the area, as well as the stagnation of art and culture. The new exhibition is a response to these concerns; and addresses the effort to preserve Urhobo art, religion and culture in the face of modernisation and a global Diaspora.


Unlike other Nigerian artistic traditions like the Igbo, Yoruba and Benin, Urhobo arts are not widely known. Curated by Dr Foss, Where Gods and Mortals Meet is the first exhibition to focus exclusively on the Urhobo, displaying some never before seen artworks and footage of cultural performances. It introduces to an international audience the spiritual beliefs, social and economic life; and the role that art plays among the Urhobo peoples.


Comprising eighty works of art, the exhibition is divided into six major sections. These include the Iphri, used to reinforce and control male aggression; masks and statues celebrating the stages in women's lives; and relations with the spirits of the ancestors. Each section includes works by Onobrakpeya,  whose art interprets traditional Urhobo art from a modern perspective while preserving its essence.


Where Gods and Mortals Meet presents works of art both in western style as beautiful sculptures; and in their traditional context, sited in recreated shrines. Accompanying the exhibition is a fully illustrated catalogue edited by Dr Perkins Foss; and includes contributions by many Urhobo scholars, placing the artworks in thematic contexts. Visitors to the exhibition will therefore see the Urhobo from the outside as well as the inside; as seen by a trained Western scholar and also as they see themselves.


In addition to Urhobo, the Oyiboredjo has varying levels of proficiency in other Nigerian languages. In London last year, he rode in a taxi driven by a native of Oyo State. And giving directions, Foss found himself lapsing into Yoruba - to the driver's profound shock. The scholar is used to getting this kind of reaction, and his enthusiasm for Nigerian cultures, especially the Urhobo, makes him a source of fascination for many. He is by no means unusual in his family, and says he and his brother have been likened to salmon that swim upstream.


"The Urhobos are a life mission", says Foss who intends to continue to promote the Urhobo, seeking help from the many friends he has made among them over the years. He recognises that Urhobo culture is currently undergoing a difficult transitional time, partly due to the wealth of oil which has not translated into people's lives. But he is confident that current revitalization efforts will lead to more awareness of cultural history; and encourage the younger generations to take delight in Urhobo language and culture.


Dr Perkins Foss will introduce the arts of the Urhobo in a lecture at the Museum for African Art in New York on May 6. Where Gods and Mortals Meet: Continuity and Renewal in Urhobo Art is on display at the museum until August. It will then travel to The Museum of Art in Columbia, US, and to other host venues until March 2006.