By Oji Onoko
He wears two caps: Secretary, Nupe Culture & Resource Centre, Bida and Head, Reseach & Documentation, Governor’s office, Minna, Niger State. Though a medical doctor by training, Ndagi Abdullahi has spent several years researching not into medicine as many would expect but the Nupe Culture and Arts! And he has several published books on various aspects of Nupe Culture to show for it. So it was only fitting that he was the Guest Speaker at the maiden Nupe Art Conference/Exhibition organised by the National Gallery of Art, NGA, penultimate week in Bida, Niger State among others.
The topic was simple enough- “Nupe Arts: A Renaissance.” But what a stir Ndagi Abdullahi caused when he declared that the ancient Nupe Arts was the origin of the famed Nok Culture, the Ife figurines and the Benin Art all rolled into one! “The ancient Nupe people were not just the masters of Arts, but they were by and large the originators of the Arts of ancient Nigeria,” he declared, adding: “The ancient Nok culture is now being discovered to have had its epicentre, and origin located in the Greater KinNupe of former times whence the culture actually spread to the Jos Plateau area where it is now associated with Kwai and Jos Tin mines!”
Quoting authorities to buttress his claim, he stressed that when Prof. Leo Frobenius first came across the Ife figurines in Yoruba land, he rightly predicted that the original centre of production of these figurines must be up North in the KinNupe general area since there was not any institutionalised background for the so called Ife figurines in Yoruba land and that Prof. Alan Ryder demonstrated far back in 1965 that the so called Ife bronzes are actually Nupe bronzes “since and as he proved, the ‘Ife bronzes’ were actually produced by the Nupe people!”
According to the guest speaker, Ryder and other scholars have remonstrated that the so called Ife bronzes actually predated the present city of Ife and that the Ile-Ife Yoruba have no tradition of bronze casting. “These scholars said that the so called Ife bronzes of today actually originated from KinNupe during the days of Prof. S. F. Nadel’s Bini Confederacy,” he emphasized. On Benin Art, he said Ryder and others also argued that Benin Art originated from KinNupe. “As a matter of fact, Captain Hugh Clapperton documented the fact that as late as the 1930s, the people of Benin and Nupe were the same one and the same Bini Nupe people,” he assrted.
Indeed, Dr. Ndagi Abdullahi postulates that the ancient Nupe people were such masters of high Arts and Craft that to this very day they continue to dominate the Arts horizon of the African world! “Every Art historian and student of sub-Saharan archaeology today knows that the most naturalistic and the greatest work of Art ever to come out of sub-Saharan Africa is the Tada Seated Figure popularly known as the Tsoede bronze. It’s asymmetrical and life size, naturalistic proportions made it unique and unparallel in African history,” he stated. According to him, Tony Craig of the Royal Arts Academy, UK, observed that “This figure shows such sophistication equal to European Renaissance sculpture of the same period so much that many refused to believe that it was the work of an African artist.”
Categorizing Nupe Arts into two broad areas- the general or mundane arts and the specialized or spiritual arts- he explained that the general or mundane arts are the recreational and occupational arts engaged by the generality of Nupe people, mostly the commoners while the specialized or spiritual arts are those that require specialized guilds of professionals, adding that the specialized arts of the ancient Nupe people were not for aesthetic reasons but were for spiritual purposes. “Culture and Spiritualism were inextricably interwoven in the life of the ancient Nupe people. The entire culture of the ancient Nupe people was spiritual in nature and that was why they were able to produce those artefacts that were of outstanding beauty and refinement.”
He traced the rise of Nupe Arts to as early as 2000 BC when KinNupe was a high centre of superlative Arts with the Nok culture taking root from it some 1500 BC. And by 500 AD, the Kisra people came with their spiritual arts including the Maltese Cross “and what is known today as the Northern knot or the Arewa symbol.” They were followed by the Akanda people with their Egbe dance and much later the Ife and Benin artefacts. He stated, however, that the decline in the production and exquisiteness of Nupe cultural artefacts began from the latter half of the second millennium and went spiralling down when the Muslim Jihadists and the Christian missionaries came and condemned most aspects of Nupe Arts as fetishism.
But Abdullahi was confident of the renaissance of Nupe Arts devoid of its spiritualism noting that “the spiritualism that drove Nupe arts, especially the specialized arts has long since been lost to history somewhere in the middle of the second millennium when foreign influences of Islam and Christianity became paramount in KinNupe.” What can be salvaged he pointed out are the aesthetic and materialistic aspects of ancient Nupe arts which includes performing arts, artefacts and craft like wood carving of stools and doors, weaving of mats, baskets, sacks and local fans with grasses, the various types of Nupe songs and musical genres and the Nupe martial arts among others. Going back to history, he recalled that when the Fulani became paramount rulers over the Nupe nation, they revived and reinvigorated ancient Nupe arts that were not driven by the ancient Nupe spiritualism of Eba, Sara or Gunnu but systematically concentrated skilled and specialized artisans into state orchestrated guilds in Bida from the late 1850s onwards. “That was what gave rise to the glass and brass works of Bida which are unparalleled throughout Africa today. The emergence of the powerful industries of glass, brass works, wood carving, bead making, etc, in Bida in the latter half of the 19th century right into the 20th century is a great testament to the fact that the ancient arts of Nupe people can be revived,” he surmised.
But why did the emerging arts of Nok culture, Benin masks and Ife bronzes become so popular while Nupe Arts which was the cradle remained at best obscure? Abdullahi was silent on this. This is a subject art scholars, critics and historians must interrogate…
* Onoko, author and journalist, writes from Lagos.