Skip to main content


Crocodiles and Canoes

By Lisa Rogers | HUMANITIES, March/April 2002 | Volume 23, Number 2

As the coastline of West Africa curves eastward below the Sahara Desert, the Niger River rises just behind the first range of hills, not two hundred miles from the sea. It flows northeast into the desert and then bends toward the south and empties into the Gulf of Guinea. Before it meets the sea, the river spreads across one of the largest inhabited deltas in the world, home to thirty million Nigerians.

The Ijo were perhaps the first to arrive, settling in the Niger Delta between five and seven thousand years ago to fish its rich waters.

Over time other groups joined them--the Itsekiri, Isoko, Urhobo, Yoruba, Igbo, Abua, and Ogoni--bringing their own languages and cultures. The river today connects them both in commerce and art.

An exhibition examining these traditions opens May 19 at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, Los Angeles. A dozen years in the planning, the exhibition brings together more than one hundred examples of delta art, from terracotta heads sculpted a thousand years ago to life-size contemporary interpretations of spirit dancers in steel.

“Ways of the River: Arts and Environment of the Niger Delta” studies how the geography of the river has shaped the lives of its people. “It is an extraordinarily complex and rich exhibition,” says Mary Nooter “Polly” Roberts, deputy director and chief curator at the Fowler. “It is unusual in that it approaches the whole region.”

As the region’s dominant natural element, water plays a central role in the spiritual life of delta society. Belief in water spirits is found even among the farming cultures. Festivals and shrines celebrate and appease the spirits. Masks and sculpture bring them to life.

The fixture that links the people of the delta is the canoe. Among the Ijos, the largest ethnic group, the canoe operates “as a common denominator of Ijo village life,” says Martha Anderson, co-curator of the exhibition with Philip M. Peek. She writes: “In regions of the delta where roads are nonexistent, and even foot-paths limited to seasonal use, canoes still provide the primary, and often the only means of transportation and intervillage communication. The Ijo often measure distance by the time it takes to paddle from one point to another. Nearly every traditional occupation practiced in the freshwater region--including fishing, farming, distilling gin, and trading--necessitates traveling by water.”

Canoes also serve as vehicles for communicating with the spirit world. They carry diviners, transport sacrifices, and figure in the masquerades and regattas celebrating the water spirits.

“Dancers perform on the river as their boats travel to or from funerals or festivals,” Anderson writes. The arrival of spirits by canoe is dramatic and anticipated by drums and shouting. Anderson describes “spectacular war canoes, manned by dozens of ‘warriors’ sporting war paint, brandishing weapons, and chanting war songs.”

Highlighting the occasions are the fanciful masks and headdresses representing the spirits--sawfish, sharks and crocodiles, pythons, hippos, and mermaids. Some are combinations of fish, humans, reptiles, and birds. Many masks are constructed as horizontals, balanced on top the dancers’ heads, moving like the surface of the river. “The incredibly complex composite headdresses are combined in almost surreal ways,” Roberts says.

“Masquerades can serve a variety of purposes,” says Anderson, who has studied the Ijo’s art and culture for more than twenty years. “When performed at funerals . . . they satisfy the request of the dead for performances. They can be performed at purification ceremonies and shrine renewals to ‘sweep the town clean.’ The few that are powerful can punish criminals and settle disputes when invoked to do so. In most cases, people claim that the masquerades bring children and prosperity in addition to driving out evil.”

The masquerades provide the venue in which the spirits can come out and play with their human counterparts. There is a cautionary element as well.

One example is the sawfish spirit Oki. The masquerade of Oki reenacts a fishing expedition on dry land. Oki arrives by canoe, chases spectators, and dances with other spirits. The fishermen net him, haul him into a canoe, and pretend to cut his throat. As if resurrected, Oki then returns to the stage to show that his powers have been harnessed for the good of the community. Mothers bring their babies to him while he pretends to hack at them with his machete until the children are rescued. It is believed that in this way Oki wards off the childhood illnesses that affect the society.

Modern elements have found their ways into the masquerades. Audiences may now encounter cars, helicopters, and speedboats--or in the Ijo naming, “land canoes,” “flying canoes,” and “European canoes.” In some cases, the spirits are said to prefer plastic dolls and soft drinks to traditional offerings. “Intensification of tradition seems to occur--brighter paint on masks, more coral on chiefs, louder music via amplifiers,” explains Peek. “Maybe that's a good metaphor for the issue: amplified culture.”

Anderson says this is an important aspect. “The exhibition highlights the process of cultural change, in which elements drawn from other cultures are modified and transformed into something new and meaningful to the host culture.” As an example, she says, visitors can see how “the Kalabari Ijo have created elaborate funerary displays out of imported Indian madras and transformed rather dull European hats into extravagant chieftaincy headgear.”

One of the figures featured in the exhibition is the work of a contemporary Kalabari Ijo artist, Sokari Douglas Camp, who combines ancient motifs with modern materials. Her Ekine masquerade is a fierce and vibrant creature made of steel, wood, cloth, and feathers. It wields a machete in each steel hand, and its apron is splattered with blood from a sacrifice. On its head rides a huge ceremonial boat, cresting perpetual waves of feathers.

The work is not the only break with tradition. So is the sculptor. Creating art for the masquerade has been a male prerogative among the Kalabari Ijo. Camp, who was educated in England and the United States, is one of the few women artists who has worked in the genre. Her work appears in galleries, rather than in the festivals. Although far removed from the masquerades, her sculptures elicit the movement, sound, and colors of the performances.

The delta’s art reflects a long and complex history. As a trading center, the delta was part of the Slave Coast for three hundred years, until the middle of the nineteenth century. It remained a colony of Britain until the mid-twentieth century. When it became independent, ethnic rivalry broke out, escalating into civil war between 1967 and 1970. Contemporary art sometimes draws from current politics and from the culture’s ancient traditions. Sokari Douglas Camp mourns the oil industry’s destruction of her homeland’s environment through life-size masquerade sculptures that carry photographs of the oil field as if they were pictures of deceased family members.

“In the iconography you can see continuities, but also change,” says Roberts. “It is a bold aesthetic, not shy, very assertive, and very dramatic. . . . Even if nobody read a single label, they’d be taken by the drama.”

One of the larger challenges has been to cope with the size of some of the figures themselves. “The Niger Delta produces some of the largest sculpture in Africa,” says Roberts. “Some objects are life-size. For Africa, that’s really big. Some of the really monumental warrior figures seem to weigh a ton.”

In addition to displays of masks, shrine figures, textiles, and decorations, visitors to the exhibition will be able to see films of masquerades and regattas from different communities. The Fowler will hold a cultural festival involving Niger Delta artists and offer a series of gallery talks, family programs, and academic workshops.

“One thing this exhibition shows is that these traditions are alive and well,” says Doran H. Ross, former director of the Fowler. “The festivals and the masquerades are still happening. There’s a lot of tenacity in these traditions.”

After the exhibition closes at the Fowler at the end of 2002, it will travel to three other sites, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Many of the scholars and artists involved in organizing the exhibition have assisted with an accompanying book, Ways of the River. “The book is more than three hundred pages with more than four hundred images,” Roberts says. “It will be the definitive volume on Niger Delta art.” “The exhibition gives some sense of the history of West Africa,” Ross explains. “There is a tendency to look at Africa as a series of groups existing in isolation. In fact, there is enormous contact and they don’t exist as separate entities. This exhibition, I hope, will help dispel that stereotype.”

About the Author

Lisa Rogers is a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Maryland.

Funding Information

The UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History received $291,296 from NEH to produce the exhibition “Ways of the River: Arts and Environment of the Niger Delta.”