In the National Museum of African Art’s “Where Gods and Mortals Meet: Continuity and Renewal in Urhobo Art,” men and women dance to exploding rhythms. Nearby, a towering “Ancestor Column” exudes a tense, powerful energy.
In very different ways, the dances and sculptures reveal the approaches of the Urhobo people to the spiritual forces — called “edjo” — they believe surround them. Guest curator Perkins Foss, an Urhobo scholar of 38 years, filmed the gyrating dances of brilliant colors and borrowed “Ancestor Column” from one of the many collectors who contributed to the show. Artist Bruce Onobrakpeya’s enchanting watercolors and prints add a contemporary twist.
By combining film, photos and extraordinarily fine Urhobo art, Mr. Foss has created the District’s most successfully contextualized museum exhibit of the year. In addition to incorporating the films and art, the curator exploits the exhibit space’s two-story height by hanging huge, strangely threatening “gods” and “ancestors” from its ceiling. He lighted the show dimly to evoke shrines that once held “spirits,” which form a central theme of the show.
The Urhobo artists who created the show’s 72 objects live in southern Nigeria’s Niger River delta. Still dependent on farming and fishing despite extensive oil reserves nearby, they determinedly hang on to their traditions and beliefs.
By dividing the exhibit into sections such as “Images of Aggression,” “Celebrating the Stages in Women’s Lives, “Communal Shrine Statuary for Ancestor Spirits” and “Spirits From the Waters,” the curator establishes what he calls the “realms” where humans and spirits meet. The figures’ grotesque teeth symbolize their connections with the spirit world.
Of course, there are knockout pieces that transcend their categories. “Statue for Male Aggression (Iphri)” terrifies with sharklike teeth and cavernous stomach. A “Maternity Figure” suckles her baby with distorted, elongated breasts. Huge shrine figures tower over the others in a composite shrine. Fantastic masks, shaped as boats and filled with people, are known as oko-re-Erivwin — or “canoe to Heaven” — representing the Urhobo belief of communication between mortals and spirits.
The show’s sensational centerpiece is the group of ancestral spirits set at the exhibit’s midpoint. The “spirits” of the “Communal Shrines” are so mesmerizing that visitors may want to begin there and circle back later to earlier galleries. The artists dressed the figures in sparkling white cloths made to honor them as special people. Staffs of office, ivory trumpets and an “iphri” accompany them.
These sizable statues carved from tall, durable trees cluster together to form “families” of spirits — images of community leaders once so powerful they became revered “edjo” — spirits. A comparable work is Mr. Onobrakpeya’s watercolor-and-plastograph print “Opha,” which shows a similar grouping of women dressed in honorific red. Plastograph is a deep etching process.
The artist’s interpretations of earlier styles and ideas are unusual. Trained at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, he reconfigures traditional Urhobo mythology and folk tales into remarkably colorful and fluid linear images.
Other exhibit sections impress, as well. “Celebrating the Stages in Women’s Lives” pictures female life changes from marriage to motherhood to old age. Bride statues are the most dramatic. Covered with dyes of red camwood mixed with palm oil and crowned with headdresses of metal strips, the statues mimic brides parading through their villages.
The “Spirits From the Waters” group reflects Urhobo reverence for the Ethiope and Forcados rivers. Their proverb “Edjo n’ame rhe” (“Spirits come from water”) says it even better.
The scooped-out wooden “Crest Mask in Shape of a Canoe” visually translates as “Canoe to Heaven.” A richly dressed family playing musical instruments skims the waters to the spirit world, or “Erivwi.” A photograph hung nearby of the “Water Spirit Festival Canoe” is loaded with musicians, paddlers, priests and guides.
Both the sculpture and the photo demonstrate Mr. Foss’ imaginative juxtaposition of contemporary photographic images with earlier 3-D ones. He has combined media, worldviews and themes for an unforgettable exhibition.
WHAT: “Where Gods and Mortals Meet: Continuity and Renewal in Urhobo Art”
WHERE: National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Sept. 25
WEB SITE: https://africa.si.edu