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On Exhibit: Art and Remembrance


By Bethany Powers '11

Published Jan 1, 2011 1:51 PM

The Fowler Museum's exhibition of art from the Benue Valley region of Central Nigeria tells a powerful story about the people and culture of a little-known region. But the story behind the exhibit is just as compelling.


Carving of a Jukun, among the Benue Valley's tribes. Photo courtesy of the Fowler Museum.

It began when Fowler Director Marla Berns '73, M.A. '76, Ph.D. '86 was a senior, just a quarter shy of graduating from UCLA and fulfilling the last of her art history undergraduate requirements. Even though she had no idea what a class on "oceanic art" would entail, she decided to take the class with art professor and non-Western art specialist Arnold Rubin — and it changed her life.

Rubin, who joined the faculty in 1967 and passed away in 1988, took a novel approach to studying art.

"He looked for corollaries in American pop culture to what he saw in Africa," Berns explains. "Rubin was one of the first people to take a great interest in body art and tattooing."

That unique approach was evident in Central Nigeria, where Rubin was one of the first researchers to explore the middle area of the 650-mile-long Benue River.

There, Rubin examined everything from tattoo artistry to gravestone decorations. And he sparked such an interest in African art in student Berns that she pursued her graduate and doctoral studies in that field. She proposed a thesis that would take her to Nigeria, and her path crossed with Rubin once again, when he visited the region during his summer break.

Video Tour: Central Nigeria Unmasked

Video by the Fowler Museum

Although plans had been underway to create an exhibit to bring the Benue to the rest of the world, they never came to fruition in Rubin's lifetime. But Berns returned to UCLA in 2001 to head the Fowler, and in 2005, the project was resurrected. Former participants came back to work on the exhibit, following Rubin's footsteps as they collected pieces, visited exhibits around the world, and expanded on what the professor had started.

"There's a lot of Rubin in there [the exhibit]," says Berns. "We hope that we will introduce a number of people to a part of Nigeria they've never heard about. It really breaks down the tribal culture and impressions we might have of them."

Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley. Through July 23, 2011, Fowler Museum, Westwood. For more information, call (310) 825-4361 or visit the Fowler online.