Purchasing Culture: the Dissemination of Associations in the Cross River Region of Cameroon and Nigeria, by Ute Röschenthaler, is a valuable and enriching contribution to the fields of African art and aesthetics, and cultural anthropology. Scholars of Nigerian traditional cultural associations and objects, especially those who focus on the rich history of the Cross River region, will find great use in Röschenthaler's balanced navigation between the nuances of men's and women's associations and the market exchangeability of material cultures, aesthetic objects, and intangible properties. Purchasing Culture seeks to reveal the pivotal roles of cultural associations—such as the Ejagham women's group Njom-Ekpa and the men's group Ekpe—within their respective regions, by discussing the ties between regional migration and trade histories of these associations. This is truly a rich volume of work that exhaustively demonstrates the innumerable layers and textures of Ejagham associations and networks, and how they gain movement from one community to the next, and evolve to take on the needs of those who buy into them.
From the onset, Röschenthaler asserts that the marketability/purchasability and exchange of various components of Cross River “cultures” is connected to a larger drive to unite villages of different ethnic identities in a common trading network. We are asked to reconsider our understanding of significant associations like Ekpe; to see them not merely as one-dimensional, ritualistic “secret societies” but rather to think about these associations as investments that ultimately address issues of development and sustainability of African people by their own means.
Röschenthaler walks us through a range of topics that collectively address the history of regional cultural dissemination, including the detailed histories of the formations of men's and women's associations, the connections between dance associations and law-making, and the various ways in which these associations and their cultures are disseminated. I am impressed by the level of detail about these cultures that this book engages—even to the point of addressing the prevalence and history of associations that are generation-specific, such as Echo-Koriko and Isughi, associations for young boys, or Moninkim, the association for girls who are entering womanhood—neither of which, we learn, are purchasable cultures. In Chapter 10, Röschenthaler maps the historical trajectory of a handful of associations into their present-day struggles for relevance, sustainability, and purpose in the face of religious obstacles (namely, the preponderance of Christian beliefs), the politicization of associations, and the question of whether or not significant associations and their cultures should be sold to people who are not native to the region.
As my own research involves Cross River women's aesthetics, I was especially drawn to her conversations about the relationships between men's and women's associations, and the aesthetic objects and performances that enter the complex world of cultural commerce that is central to her argument. Röschenthaler asserts that women's associations have hardly had a firm place in theoretical approaches, villages in which they exist, or in other spaces of cultural significance and/or analysis. The notion of a complex systemic culture and body of philosophies that is woman-based is often trumped by the belief that women are somehow fixed to the more socially familiar activities of “housework” and “caring for children.” In Chapter 5, Röschenthaler demonstrates the inherent power and complexities of women's associations, and at the same time, debunks the myth that they are merely inferior facsimiles of men's associations. She finds that both men's and women's associations were developed at the same time “on the basis of an existing dual and complementary gendered ascription of tasks and responsibilities” (p. 215). She describes a textured system of interplay between men's and women's groups—a push and pull over bodies of information and forms of expression. For me, one of the great contributions of this portion of Röschenthaler's analysis is that in no instance are the women's associations that she either encountered or researched discussed in terms of passivity or neutrality—the author's expert reporting demonstrates that a great part of the reason for the development, maintenance, and movement of associations and their material cultures lies with the ability of women to “retain control over the power of their bodies” (p. 215) and agency over their own cultural associations.
I find Röschenthaler's conversation about the women's association Ekpa, and the Ibibio and Igbo equivalents, Abang or Iban-Isong “association of daughters of the land” to be useful, not only as a means of describing the advent of “woman power” in the Ejagham village setting (as something that could be invoked during the “mask of night” to address issues such as the endangerment of a community and its food crops, or the violation of established social norms), but also as a force that had legs beyond the village setting and among foreigners, such as in the case of European Colonial officers and scholars, for whom “the mere thought of women using their nakedness, not as an erotic device, but as a weapon to punish and even kill men was a provocation” (p. 217). Röschenthaler's discussion of Ekpa and other contiguous women's associations, in this regard, reveals that this form of women's power had both local and far-reaching consequences, even so far as into the collective imaginations of European colonists, and into the scope of colonial politics.
I am genuinely intrigued by the complex nature of cultural “purchasability” (that is marketability, in some instances, and commercial availability in others) as it is revealed through Purchasing Culture. We learn that these Ejagham associations, which already have an inherent allure, have degrees of purchasability, which are, at times, enhanced by “miraculous performances and secret languages,” intriguing objects and sculptures, and “elaborate performances.” And while the market value of certain cultures can be increased, there are existing regulations concerning which cultures can actually be purchased, and which can only be ascertained by other social interactions (such as marriage, for example). Not every culture is available for purchase.
While Röschenthaler's analysis is a very close reading of a portion of Ejagham territory, I found this book quite illuminating for my own study of Efik and Ibibio cultural objects and associations. For those of us who research African objects—not only their aesthetic histories and cultural significances, but also how and why they and their ideas move across community and regional boundaries—this text is a useful resource, in that it carefully presents the strong case that objects of significance within associations that are similar to those found in Ejagham territory could possibly travel across regions, not just by means of physical commerce, but by the purchasing of intangible, aesthetic concepts as well.
I walk away from Purchasing Culture with a greater appreciation for the nuanced connections between women's and men's associations in Cross River. In my own research of the Ibibio women's institution known as Mbopo, I found many seemingly inexplicable aesthetic ties between Mbopo and the men's associations of Ekpo, Ekpe, and Ekong—the sharing of objects, emblems, performative gestures, and apparel—but found myself unable to grasp the rationale for and method behind a number of these connections. Röschenthaler's analysis has shed a new light for me to consider Mbopo, its material cultures, and how they gain movement via networks of exchange, in this respect. This book offers an encyclopedic collection of histories about the dominant associations in Ejagham culture, and tracks these histories into their contemporary positions, all in an effort to demonstrate the interconnectedness of commerce and exchange with sustainable and evolving cultural systems. Röschenthaler's work is a gift to Cross River scholarship and an invaluable contribution to the fields of African studies, women's/gender studies, art history, and anthropology.