all photos by the author, except where otherwise noted
Ogbinon, a sacred, black-suited masquerade with a head crest made out of jawbones, genuflects to a cement sculpture in the Cross River town of Adim (Fig. 1). His knees barely touch the ground before he jumps to his feet and chases a young man. Yanked back by an attendant, he twists around and unleashes a fury of machete blows on the chains that restrain him. Next the masquerade kneels back down; this time for a minute of silence. In front of him, on a stool, sits a life-sized, polychrome female figure. Towering above him, on a high pedestal, stands a naturalistically rendered traditional ruler with a sword and a shield. Suddenly the masquerade dangles from the wrought iron fence that encloses the commemorative monument's platform. He crosses its length, leaps to the ground and performs another set of superbly executed dance steps; then he dashes off.
The paradoxical nature of this encounter between a bellicose masquerade and a modern cement sculpture is not immediately apparent.1 Worldwide, ceremonies periodically surround commemorative sculptures, whose patriotic sentiments bear “a strong affinity with religious meanings” (Anderson 1991:10). Closely associated with the nineteenth century emergence of modern nation states, this genre of sculpture interprets important forebears as the product of a people's shared history so as to inculcate in them a vision of a joint future (Weiner 1985:210). As objects that provide a frame for social action (Goffman 1959), local commemorative sculptures like the one in Adim furthermore resemble the region's fertility and war shrines; in fact, as I discuss later, they partake in the latter's genealogy. Although these shrines consist of heaps of boulders and today only rarely display figurative sculpture, they too are the subject of masquerades' devotion, embody collective histories (although via ancestral spirits, not historicized figures) and facilitate social cohesion (albeit among members of clans and wards, not nations).2
Still, Ogbinon's 2001 performance during Adim's new yam festival is perplexing. It is characterized by opposing “memorializing strategies” (de Jong and Rowlands 2007). The historicism at work in the cement sculpture adopts the former British colonizer's visual language and technology to propound a statement so resolute as to warrant a permanent fixture in the center of the town. Presumably, the artwork, in and of itself a product of “postcolonial pastiche” (Basu 2013:24), communicates “inalienable values” (Weiner 1985, Weiss 1997) and considers the community's relationship to the global world.3 An indigenous mode of memorializing, brought out through Ogbinon's ephemeral performance, does the opposite. The masquerade treads carefully around the religious sensitivities of a deeply divided population. Catholics, Protestants, and Pentecostals' varying degrees of (in)tolerance towards local religious practices—spirit invocation in particular—are the subject of heated debates and sometimes result in fierce confrontations. Deliberately elusive and fragile, the masquerade permits multifarious interpretations and calls for constant renewal.
The subject of my investigation is a body of hitherto undocumented commemorative sculptures and their meaning. Cement statues by the workshop of Ubi Obongha Ikpi (a.k.a. Ubi Artist; ca. 1930–2005) of the Yakurr town of Mkpani embellish the town centers of twelve agrarian communities in the Middle Cross River region of Nigeria.4 These monuments span four decades, 1960 to 2002, and were commissioned by age grades and individuals intending to leave a mark on their communities. Outstanding they are. For even though they are embedded in time-honored cultural productions and are continuously assailed by the immediacies, ambiguities and intensities of their performances contexts, their most noteworthy characteristic is this: they do not budge.
To complement the literature on cement sculptures in the broader region, the majority of which appear in funerary contexts as tombs or tombstones or constitute civic monuments (see Butler 1963, Nicklin and Salmon 1977, Domowitz and Mandirola 1984, Rosevear 1984, Soulillou et al. 1985, Vogel 1991, Carlson 2003, Arnoldi 2007, Ross 2007, Basu 2013), I approach Ubi Artist's sculptures through their stubborn materiality. My overriding questions are: does the use of cement in expressions of postcolonial modernity in the Middle Cross River region play a significant role in the process by which people shed themselves of their colonial modernity; and does cement, apart from being a foreign-introduced medium with a priori associations of cosmopolitanism, permit people to not merely represent their postcolonial sentiments, but conceptualize them—that is, think in and through them?
I use the discourse of new materialism as a framework for my investigation. Conceptions of causality in the material world have undergone radical changes in the last four decades. The “brute ‘thereness' [of matter] seems so self-evident and unassailable” (Coole and Frost 2010:7). Yet, based on current insights in quantum physics, matter instead appears to be “a mercurial stabilization of dynamic processes” (Coole and Frost 2010:13). New materialism considers matter to possess agency—to be “lively” (Coole and Frost 2010:7)—and the hard boundaries between sentient and nonsentient beings drawn by Cartesian dualism to be iffy.
Older studies of materialism that are rooted in Newtonian mechanics and Cartesian dualism nevertheless continue to be useful. There is general agreement among scholars that even though the experience of being-in-the-world requires an “ontological commitment to the materiality of things,” at an analytical level, subjects and objects constitute each other (Van Beek 1996:19). “The immaterial can only be expressed through the material” (Miller 2010:72). This turns objects into social actors whose capacities are particularly effective because we take them for granted. Daniel Miller calls this “the humility of things” (Miller 2010:50). Alfred Gell, to whom objects' capacity to intervene in the human sphere is ultimately traceable to spatiotemporal dispersed human agency, also recognizes that objects, once unleashed, create unintended consequences (1998:16, 221–23).
Marshall McLuhan (1994) and Walter Benjamin (1999) in particular advanced the notion that objects' agency is far reaching, resulting (in the case of newly invented media and technologies) in an alteration of human perception. However, the notion that new media have intrinsic capacities with universal outcomes has been questioned. To Miller, “the problem with the idea of inherent capacity is that usually we do not know what this is until it is manifested in usage and meaning” (2010:112). Bradd Weiss similarly argues that particular forms of subject-object relations “are only realized in the course of specific sociocultural activities” (1997:166). Erving Goffman further explains that people are culturally conditioned to respond to objects as frames for social action. The smooth operation of society demands that people maintain a “veneer of consensus” so as to avoid “an open conflict of definitions of [their] situation” (Goffman 1959:7, 10). A crucial characteristic of these tacit agreements is that they remain invisible until associated behavioral codes are breached. How media work within a specific cultural matrix, however, presents a valuable tool for interrogating artworks' meaning, particularly when, as is the case with Ubi Artist's sculptures, neither the artists or patron's original intention, nor the artworks' initial reception, has been documented.
The Middle Cross River region of Nigeria is historically associated with decentralized societies that adamantly defended their egalitarian principles and strove to maintain their autonomy. From the seventeenth century onward, communities developed a strong war ethos, facing the havoc of the transatlantic slave trade, British colonialism (1900–1960) and, after 1960, a series of military dictatorships and corrupt, civilian-led regimes. The Biafra War (1967–1970) was the broader region's unsuccessful attempt to secede from the nation. To this day, communities occasionally defy the modern nation's sovereignty and take up arms against their neighbors (Hannerz 1997, Shaka 2005) or, as was the case in 2001, rise up against the country's imposed Local Government Councils (Cross River State 2002).5
Despite their defiant attitude towards the modern nation and their predilection for ephemeral art forms, people in Abi, Biase, Yakurr, and Obubra Local Government Areas (LGA) erected commemorative monuments that are suggestive of centralized representation and monarchy and hence of British colonialism. With the exception of Ubi Artist's monument at Obubra Local Government Council, which was unveiled on October 1, 1960, the day of Nigerian independence, these works all foreground priest-chiefs who guided their people during perilous migrations (e.g., in Igbo-Imabana), defended them during decisive local wars (e.g., in Assiga) or heroically weathered colonialism's assaults on towns' sovereignty (e.g., in Ugep). As indicated on plaques, these men are cast in the role of royal fathers (Fig. 2). Indeed, current incumbents of these offices are conceptualized as monarchs and addressed as “Your Royal Highness” or “Your Majesty,” and their residences, replete with thrones, are identified as their “palaces.” This monarchical etiquette is particularly pronounced where town leaders have been integrated into the administrative structure of the federal government as paramount rulers of districts, in which case they are afforded an executive model Peugeot, a driver, a palace guard, and a monthly stipend.
In most towns, these life-sized figurative representations are situated in the vicinity of the palace. They are mounted on a variety of supports: traffic roundabouts or similar low, tiered platforms; tiered, cone-shaped bases; or tall pedestals set upon high platforms (Fig. 3). Several structures are furbished with molded sofas and enclosed with a wrought iron fence or a balustrade. The elderly chiefs are depicted wearing full-length, wrapper-style waist cloths, shawls folded over their left shoulder or draped around the waist, and a variety of caps and European hats (Fig. 4). Where women are shown, they are semi-nude and wear only a small apron (Fig. 5).
The Nigerian crest has been emblazoned on the bases of two sculptures, once as a relief plaque (at Obubra Local Government Council) and once as a painted emblem (in Okorokpana) (Fig. 6); nevertheless, the crest has been juxtaposed with the motif of an ukara cloth, a local power symbol (Thompson 1983, Cole and Aniakor 1984, Fenton 2012). This indigo-dyed textile is sacred and exclusive to Ekpe, the men's leopard society; its graphic motifs constitute one form of nsibidi, the region's well-known semiotic language system (Leib and Romano 1984, Ottenberg and Knudsen 1985, Fenton 2012, Carlson 2007). Shortly after the military handed over the nation to civilian rule in 1999, age grades, who are periodically charged to refurbish these monuments with a new coat of enamel paint, in several cases also embellished the sashes draped over traditional rulers' shoulders with green-white-green stripes to suggest the Nigerian flag.
This bricolage of indigenous and (post) colonial iconography deserves scrutiny. Regardless of their religious affiliations and of the modern political and economic realities, as I argued elsewhere (Salami 2008, 2009), most people in this region proclaim themselves to be connoisseurs of their indigenous culture. They ceaselessly debate the merit of their “tradition” and are determined to safeguard its integrity. Yet, forced to yield to the modern bureaucracy's demand for centralized representation, they thought it expedient to adopt the imperial pomp of their former colonizer and to utilize imported artistic genres (commemorative monuments) as well as a foreign-introduced medium (cement) to objectify their aim. Layers of ambiguity characterize these monuments. One might ask, for example, if these towering, life-size effigies of traditional rulers are meant to salute or to challenge the federal government's authority. The inadvertent visual homogenization of the feuding communities' townscapes via these conspicuous monuments is baffling. Does it align with Nigeria's promotion of multiculturalism as expressed in the doctrine “unity in diversity,” or is it closer in spirit to a the locally often reiterated truism about self-defense, “there is strength in numbers,” or both? The contradictions at play—the push and pull between local and foreign-imposed values—are inherent in (post)colonial societies. More broadly speaking, they are typical of the tension between the local and the global or, in reference to posthumanism and the discourse on new materialism, they are thought to be the outcome of interactive global systems and not necessarily in need of resolution (Appadurai 1990, Hall 1997, King 1997, Robertson 1995, Coole and Frost 2010).
I contend that from the viewpoint of the people in this region, cement's most salient feature is that it is not wood. Cement permits both Christians and adherents to local African religions to dissociate the modern commemorative monuments from their local shrine architecture, thus allowing these disparate groups to bridge their ideological differences, honor their shared past, and unite behind a utopian vision of the future: their town leaders taking up their rightful position—from an egalitarian perspective—among global leaders. But more fundamentally, I argue, cement's rigidity, fixedness, and durability has helped to create the idea of traditional rulers who are able to stand their ground in the face of Western domination.
Despite the indelible mark Ubi Artist6 (Fig. 7) left on the townscapes of the Middle Cross River region, the sculptor received little local recognition. During the unveiling ceremony of his commemorative sculpture in Igbo-Imabana in 2002, for example—an elaborate affair that involved canopies, balloons, and ribbon-cutting—his name was not mentioned. Instead, public speakers foregrounded the sundry achievements of the age grade that had commissioned the artwork.
Ubi Artist thought of himself primarily as a self-taught artist. In 1949, a district officer stationed at Obubra took note of his drawing, painting, and metal-casting skills and recommended him to the Teacher Training Center in Uyo in Nigeria's palm belt. There, Ubi Artist briefly apprenticed with A.P. Umana, who had been a student of colonial educator Kenneth C. Murray during the early 1930s (Ogbechie 2008:38). But Ubi Artist fell severely ill and, after three months, returned to his home town of Mkpani. The artist reminisced that he was so talented that “Umana nearly denied” him as an apprentice. People in Uyo referred to him as “another Ben” (a reference to Nigeria's foremost early modern artist Ben Enwonwu—on whom see Ogbechie 2008).
While Ubi Artist's daily tasks in Umana's workshop revolved around “clay work; mixing clay for molding,” he nevertheless became familiar with the Ibibio town's rich repertoire of cement tombs. The technique he would later employ to create his cement statues in the Middle Cross River region is identical to that used by internationally renowned Uyo artist Sunday Jack Akpan. A negative mold, pressed into a heap of sand, provides the foundation for shaping the cement statues' back half; sand piled on top of the hardened cement shell is then formed into a positive mold to aid in the completion of the statues' front half. Solid limbs, which are sometimes reinforced with wooden sticks or iron rods, are attached using pegs and holes (Nicklin and Salmons 1977:33).
From the mid-1970s onward, Ubi Artist received commissions for commemorative sculptures about every four to five years, providing him with an income sufficient to sustain him. During the 1980s, he took on several apprentices: his eldest son Eteng Ubi Obong, the architect Archibong of Ekori, and Ben Arikpo of Ugep (all now deceased). But he “was never really satisfied” when he had to rely on others for help. The younger men were often charged with the creation of the sculptures' bases. Where they fulfilled independent commissions, they followed Ubi Artist's design schemes.
By the time I first met the sculptor in 1999, he was working with his younger son, John Ubi. Advanced in age and ill of health, he found it difficult to recall many of the details of his long career and frequently contradicted himself. He had a mythopoetic conception of artistic genius and saw himself as a divinely inspired artist. He died in Mkpani in 2005.
CEMENT IN THE CULTURAL MATRIX OF THE MIDDLE CROSS RIVER REGION
The use of cement as a sculptural medium in expressions of postcolonial modernity in southeastern Nigeria has obvious connotations of cosmopolitanism, given that it was introduced by foreigners. Like bitumen (in the case of asphalt), cement is a binder used to create a particular form of concrete. Cement is therefore closely linked to the emergence of a colonial landscape of paved roads, bridges, multistoried houses, schools, churches, office buildings, and government complexes.
That cement constituted part of an innovative technology and bore connotations of progress is easily deduced from a handwritten manuscript assembled by amateur historian Ibor Esu Oden. Under the heading of “Important Dates and Events in Ugep,” the author recorded,
The first man who proposed to build upstairs building in Ugep: Tata Obeten Anoyon of Kekonkolo-Ijom … The first people who bought motor [car] or lorry from Ibenda, Bikobiko: Ete Eno Obeten & Co…. The major street in Ugep opened 1944 … Mr. Iwara Lemi Utum Solomon of Ibenda, Bikobiko, is the first man to put up five story building in the year 1993 (Oden 2002).
These milestones were deemed of such distinction as to mingle with references to Queen Elizabeth II's 1956 visit to Nigeria and an eclipse of the sun, which Oden recorded on May 20, 1947.
More precisely, Ubi Artist's adoption of cement as a sculptural medium in 1960 corresponds to plans for dramatic improvements to the region's infrastructure. At the time, Louis Berger, Inc., an engineering firm based in Pennsylvania and working on behalf of the Agency for International Development in Washington, DC, trained forty-five local personnel to conduct an extensive geological survey of the Middle Cross River region. The company drew up plans for the Ikom-Calabar Highway and a bridge that was to span the Cross River at Ekuri-Adadama. These projects were meant to link Ikom, Obubra, and Ugep to the port city of Calabar (today the state's capital) and, via Abakaliki, to the region's then administrative capital, Enugu. According to the firm's 1962 report, “this isolated corner of the Eastern Province” was economically depressed and people “worked in lackadaisical fashion”; they had no incentive to produce a surplus, because the cost associated with its transport made farming beyond the subsistence level unfeasible (Berger 1962:5, 11). The new international border between Nigeria and Cameroon had put a stop to commerce along the Mamfe-Calalar Road to the east (Berger 1962:23) and preexisting but discontinuous stretches of roads to the north, south, and west were not accessible. Conditions were such that surveyors' ground exploration had to be conducted on foot, along local trails.
One imagines the elation the prospect of eased interregional connectivity would have sparked in the local population. When the Ikom-Calabar Highway was finally completed more than a decade later, on February 28, 1974, the New York Times reported, quoting Mrs. Efik, “girls no longer want to work but ‘they talk all the time about going to the city,’” and Mr. Okum “talked of a change in his own grandson. The youth used to pretend that he was a farmer or a fisherman […] but now he play[ed] at driving a truck ‘and he want[ed] a motorcycle’” (Johnson 1974). Thus, while Ubi Artist's 1960 cement sculpture at Obubra Local Government Council may only be linked to the blueprints for future developments, his sculptures of town leaders, the earliest of which date to the mid-1970s, relate directly to an emerging cosmopolitan identity. Ubi Artist's early works would have dazzled their viewers and sparked diverse global imaginings.
THE OBUBRA MONUMENT
To my knowledge, there is no documentation of the unveiling of Ubi Artist's monument at Obubra Local Government Council on October 1, 1960, but the date, recorded on the monument's platform, evokes the euphoria associated with independence celebrations elsewhere and immediately places all of Ubi Artist's works in a postcolonial context.
The near life-size, naturalistically rendered figure, situated at the center of a sizable plaza surrounded by administrative buildings, stands on a round pedestal on top of a massive, stepped, cone-shaped base that raises the structure's overall height to about fifteen feet (Fig. 8). The work represents a humble farmer dressed in a green polo shirt and a light blue, ankle-length cloth draped around the waist. His raised right arm wields a cutlass. Ubi Artist recalled in 2002 that its now missing left hand once held a hoe: “It was boys playing football who broke it.”
The sculpture is overwhelmed by its setting; the statue competes visually with an inscription that cascades down the steps below the farmer's feet. The message, “To all who have died and who will die in the cause of human freedom,” allows one to think of this compatriot as a martyr and of the monument as a tomb of an unknown soldier. The connotations of patriotism implied by this genre (Anderson 1991:9) are underscored by the Nigerian crest on the pedestal's backside and the monument's green-white-green color scheme. Men's conscription into the British army during World War II aside, surely, this work was meant to shake off the experience of six decades of British colonialism.
The monument's inscription implies many more deaths to come. Was the artist suggesting the cause of freedom was far from complete? Did the sculpture at Obubra anticipate the Biafra War? Given the current state of the work, which shows a figure wielding a cutlass, it is tempting to see in this sculpture not the docile, nation-building farmer that was likely intended, but a warrior determined to defend his autonomy, land, and family against foreign intruders. Raised cutlasses have a specific connotation in the region. In Yakurr culture, lifting one's hand and bringing down to the ground the hand of an imaginary enemy, incapacitating him in the process, is built into the ubiquitous ritual of pouring libations to ancestors. It conveys that a stranger intent on spoiling the culture will never subjugate the people. “I want you to know our gods will never allow it,” explained the Okpebili of Ugep, Cornelius Ikpi Edet.7
A sculpture commissioned from Ubi Artist by the people of Mkpani in 1994, thirty-four years after the erection of the Obubra work, thus shows a far more ferocious culture hero (Fig. 9). A ritually charged priest—the shawl draped around the figure's waist implies ritual activation—raises a machete in one hand, holding in the other a decapitated enemy's skull. Mosaics on the pedestal—one shows a cutlass and a hoe, the other an open book—emphasize the importance of agriculture and education. The monument suggests compatibility between modernity and indigenous rule, rendering the modern state's political apparatus superfluous. Considering the frequency with which people in this region have engaged in local wars since the 1960s, including the Biafra War, this work underscores local sentiments regarding the state's illegitimacy (cf. Hannerz 1997).
LOCAL DISCOURSE ON CEMENT
The local discourse on cement as a sculptural medium only rarely comments on its modernity. Instead, people explicitly link cement's efficacy to its solidity and durability, i.e., to its capacity to withstand thieves and to resist fire. The Oja Onen sculpture at Bikobiko town hall in Ugep illustrates this (Fig. 10). Its name means “the gossiper.” A four-foot-tall, abstracted, nude, male figure with pronounced genitalia is flanked by his daughter. The statues overlook a performance arena and, since the early 1980s, a small market. Oja Onen's custodian, Ubi Eteng Eno, explained,
His male organ signifies entry into women's issues. You can gossip there. No one will take you seriously, because you are under protection of that deity.8
Neither this work's exact date nor the identity of the artist is known. Keith Nicklin reports,
This impressive sculpture was removed by would-be thieves in the early 1970s but proved too heavy to be made off with, was recovered by the rightful owners and secured back in position with cement (Nicklin 1999:80).
Nicklin may have been unaware that the sculpture's articulation in cement was itself an extreme measure taken to prevent its loss. The cement sculpture was modeled over a 1930s wooden carving, which it retained as its armature. A photograph by Daryll Forde in the collection of the Rhodes House Library (University of Oxford) shows the original sculpture (Fig. 11), which is locally remembered to be the work of Eteng Nsot of Ikpakapit ward.
Reports of theft of artworks by strangers abound and locally are vaguely assigned to the period just before, during, or shortly after the Biafra War. The Obol Atewa, Ubi Okoi, recalled a visitor who “collected some of the juju.”9 In keeping with the region's proclivity to trick strangers, he claimed to have promised this man antiquities from a shrine in the forest—unbeknownst to the visitor the place of execution—and to have killed him. Nicklin, who held a position in the Nigerian Federal Department of Antiquities throughout the 1970s, relates that the illicit trade in artworks was extensive; it involved the smuggling of even difficult-to-transport objects across the border to Cameroon and their occasional resurfacing in European collections (Nicklin 1975:87). In 1974, for example, Hélène Kamer, a gallery owner in Paris, exhibited figures that had originally been part of monumental Mbembe slit gongs and carved wooden pillars. Her Malian supplier informed her that after his 1973 reconnaissance journeys in Obubra “nothing remained in situ” (LaGamma 2013:146).
Well-founded fear of conflagrations is another overt reason why Yakurr turned to cement. In 1975, military officers stationed in Ugep, seeking revenge for the death of comrades, committed arson. “They had that prejudice that Ugep people are cannibals,” explained Steven Obeten.10 They set out to destroy shrines so as to render them impotent. The Oja Onen shrine was particularly subject to their wrath. According to its custodian, the soldiers “tried to cut the figure's ‘prick,’ but cutting it down was not possible,” because it was made of cement.11 The fire engulfed numerous compact neighborhoods. Six hundred houses burnt to the ground, 7000 people were left homeless, and thirteen people were killed (Ugep 1975). The Legomi society, a men's association, lost its shrine and Okowa masquerades and thereafter ceased to perform boy's initiations. During an earlier blaze in 1918, remembered as the “Great Fire of Omini Egom” (Oden 2002), all of the patriclans in the inner core of the town lost their carved oliphants, henceforth forcing them to borrow paraphernalia from patriclans in outlying areas, an act that was frowned upon. Thus, the anxiety about the safety of artifacts ultimately extends to and is about the preservation of the cultural practices these objects sustain.
The link between cement and wood is also evident in Ubi Artist's use of earlier wooden shrines as prototypes for his cement monuments. Two monumental, carved, wooden pillars, about twelve feet in height—the Epete shrine in Ijom ward and the Ogbagbo shrine in Ikpakapit ward—were also damaged during the 1918 fire. Photographs by Daryll Forde show their remains were still standing in the late 1930s. Ubi Artist replaced the badly deteriorated Ogbagbo pillar (Fig. 12) with a new wooden sculpture in the early 1960s, reworking its iconography in the process. Later commissioned to replace a similar wooden pillar in Assiga, he turned to cement and worked out the theme of his mature works.
Ikpi Ubi Ofem explained12 that the original wooden pillars had themselves been replacements for sacred trees that had been lost during a drought; their installation purportedly required a human sacrifice. They were set up amidst boulders said to have been brought from Akpa, Yakurr's homeland near the Cameroonian border. Although individual rocks functioned as indices of the spatiotemporal presence of families' ancestors, the ward shrines were not dedicated to ancestral spirits per se. The amalgamation of rocks merely signified cooperation between various families. The shrines' purpose was to unify people behind war efforts and to garner the support of war deities. Men gathered there to empower themselves the night before they moved to the warfront, returning to these sites for purification after battle. Clay pots that sat at the bases of these pillars also received libations during various phases of the agricultural cycle (Resident 1936), indicating a conceptual link between power in warfare, peace, fertility, and abundance. The shrines still constitute stops along a processional route that is regularly traversed by priest-chiefs, masquerades, and newly inaugurated title holders.
The pillars' deeply undercut relief carvings consisted of discrete motifs, primarily of reptiles, which were spread fairly evenly across surfaces. A colonial officer recorded in 1936 that the sculpture in Ikpakapit featured crocodiles, iguana, a dog, and a woman with a child (Resident 1936). Elders in Ijom ward remembered similar motifs. The dog was charged to remove the infant's feces. Reptiles, particularly lizards and geckos, had a medicinal function. Lizards were used as an antidote to witchcraft and geckos as a countermeasure to coughs and tuberculosis.
Ubi Artist's early 1960s rendition in wood of the Ogbagbo sculpture (Fig. 13) consolidates the overall conceptual underpinnings of the earlier work in a single, frontally oriented image. He shows a successful farmer and proven warrior, machete in hand and human skulls at his feet, standing above a woman who nurses an infant. The implication is that agricultural abundance can only be achieved during times of peace and that farming the land and defending it require a large, healthy family and cooperation between the sexes. “A man alone cannot succeed,” explained Patricia Ujong Oden, Ugep's “first lady.”13 This cultural tenet is so important as to surface during the region's annual new yam festivals, when young women, whose dances are designed to invoke the ancestors, are juxtaposed with priests, who are charged to appease these spirits at shrines. Juxtaposed male and female figures on Mbembe slit gongs—slit gongs being used throughout the region to announce the outbreak of fire and war—reinforce this regional “thought style” (cf. Fardon 2007).
The iconography of the refurbished Ogbabgo shrine was later repeated on cement monuments in Adim, Ekori, and Nko by showing town leaders, not ordinary men, standing on top of pedestals modeled upon European conventions, and “first ladies,” not average women, sitting on stools in front of these structures. One of Ubi Artist's apprentices, Archibong of Ekori (active during the 1980s), was fond of this theme. His sculpture in Adim commemorates the Onun Echu Otala and his wife Ime Ejak; his work in Ekori portrays Obol Igbo, the founder of Epenti village, and his wife. In both cases, the men wield swords.
A third example by Ubi Artist is found in Nko (Fig. 14). Here, Obol Omini Bassey, standing above his spouse, carries a staff and wears a brass spiral armlet exclusive to his office and a red stocking cap topped by a European hat. Town leaders wear this particular combination of accouterments during the climax of the annual new yam festival, when they sit in state to watch the Ekoi dance. This is a victory dance that celebrates the demise of a fictional enemy who possessed guns (Salami 2008:65). Given this iconography, cement's association with cosmopolitanism, the postcolonial monuments' debt to the older war shrines, and their materially constituted capacity to withstand catastrophe, it is possible to assert that Ubi Artist's sculpted town leaders retain the function of the earlier heroes' vigilance. The modern sculptures are intended to project an image of fortitude as they face the nation and the world.
An even closer link between the older wooden pillars and Ubi Artist's cement monuments exists in Assiga. Here, a “mighty tree” acquired as war booty during a conflict with invading Agbo people during the 1910s was used to challenge local carvers to display their skills. Two weathered fragments of this work, showing a reptile, a human figure, and a snake, were still kept underneath a sun shelter in 2002. As the town leader of Assiga explained, the alligator was symbolic of fearfulness, the snake commanded warriors to “be strict and poisonous,” and a leopard (which had not been preserved) once indicated bravery.14
For this commission, Ubi Artist created a cement, not a wooden replica, though retaining the wooden pillar's columnar structure. The original zoological motifs were incorporated into a larger historical narrative that encircles the cement column as a bas-relief (Fig. 15). Personages who were central to the Assiga-Agbo conflict are seated on stools separated by two ceremonial swords and a paddle, the weapons suggesting the dignity of the reign and the oar the intruders' arrival by boat. A human skull at the foot of a male diviner signifies the taking of human life and a medicine bundle placed near a heroine, Akopkpo, recalls her successful plea for spiritual intercession. The ruler who presided over the conflict, the Oval Ndembem Igbele, is shown on top of the column (Fig. 3b). Made in 1972, this is Ubi Artist's first sculpture of a town leader.
The fire-damaged Epete shrine in Ijom ward was eventually replaced with a plain cement column set on a tiered platform, a work commissioned by “army men” in the 1990s. When Ijom's ward leader explained the Epete shrine would have been replaced with a wooden sculpture had Ijom ward had its own carver, his council elders vehemently interjected, “We would not have wanted to see that pillar replaced, because this is a modern age … In the modern age we prefer cement … fire will not eat cement.”15 Given that the people of the Middle Cross River region were formerly colonized and their membership in the modern nation state forcibly effected, is it not noteworthy that Ubi Artist's cement sculptures are intimately associated with war monuments and the defense of sovereign territory; that cement is recognized to provide protection against foreigners who would steal the artifacts needed to sustain the culture; and that cement resists even the most terrifying infernos, preventing annihilation? I think it is safe to say that Ubi Artist's postcolonial monuments entail an element of resistance and that their overall indeterminacy is at least partially the result of covert criticism of foreign-imposed institutions.
CEMENT AND CHRISTIANITY
Cement as a sculptural medium in the broader Cross River region has another connotation. It first occurred in Christian funerary contexts. Because early Christian converts acquired literacy in order to read the Bible, they were drawn into the colonial administration to constitute an elite class of court clerks (Afigbo 1972). They used cement for their tombs to turn their back on their polytheistic belief, for locally it is held that cement, unlike wood, does not attract spirits. Further, cement signaled the Christians' colonial modernity. A characteristic of the latter was its use of non-Christians' alleged conservatism as a foil to Christians' progressive outlook (cf. Salami and Visonà 2013).
By 1917, Ibibio artists in southeastern Nigeria's oil palm belt created tombs that initially involved the erection of Christian crosses on graves, but soon developed into elaborate, life-size, figurative tableaux. Most of the artists were ex-mission students (Butler 1963:122). They drew their inspiration from European cemeteries' late Victorian-style masonry (Jones 1984:92), but also built on Ibibio nwomo. These secondary funerary displays consisted of wooden frames covered with colorful patchwork tapestries whose narrative scenes served as backdrops for mime dramas (Butler 1963, Salmons 1984). In their innovation, the syncretic Ibibio cement sculptures reflected homegrown modern impulses observable in countless genres of mud and clay sculptures, for example, in Igbo mbari figurative tableaux, Benin altars dedicated to Olokun, and Ejagham mgbogadem sculptures (Gore and Nevadomsky 1997:62; see also Cole 1982, Ogbechie 2005, Peek 2002, Röschenthaler 1993, Koloss 2008). By the 1960s, Ibibio marketed cement portrait busts and life-size commemorative sculptures along roadsides in Ikot Ekpene near Uyo (Nicklin and Salmons 1977, Soulillou et al. 1985, Vogel 1991).
Around the same time as the Ibibio sculptures, a genre of tombs and memorials made of cement emerged in the Ikom and Bakor regions of Cross River State. By 1911, artists created monuments consisting of low, tiered platforms embellished with meaningfully arranged household and prestige objects. Headstones and crosses drew on Celtic and Gothic-inspired colonial church architecture (Rosevear 1984). Like the Ibibio works, these monuments were syncretic in nature. Post-World War II memorials show highly stylized, frontally oriented figures that are evocative of gestured nsibidi. As a performance mode, nsibidi is used by Ekpe members to communicate discreetly amongst themselves, while also “publicly flaunting” their power (Carlson 2003, 2007). Ubi Artist indicated he was unaware of this body of cement sculptures, but the convention found here to encode sculptures with layers of meaning by grounding them in a larger performance context is widespread and applies to his oeuvre.16
While the syncretism of the Ibibio and Ejagham cement sculptures may suggest relatively harmonious relationships between Christians and adherents to African religions during the early colonial period, archival records from the Middle Cross River region indicate considerable animosity between these factions of Nigerian society during the 1930s. As an example, the Yakurr Improvement Union, an organization of Christians, fought relentlessly to oust the “heathen” priest-chiefs of Ugep from their leadership positions. The organization's president, E. Omini, in a letter to the district officer at Obubra dated July 24, 1939, accused priests of “heinous crimes,” including cannibalism, theft, and “cruelty to domestic animals.” The Christians objected “to the rule, as village heads, by the [fertility priests] in the Yakurr villages,” advocating the installment of a Christian as the president of the Native Council and the Native Court (Obot 1939). Concurrently, the town leader of Ugep, Obol Obu, who held a “Warrant confirmed by His Honor [the governor at Lagos]” to act as the “Native Authority,” wrote to the governor on July 6, 1938, to complain bitterly about the Improvement Union's relentless assaults on his authority (Obot 1939).
These politically inflected, ideological disputes persist today. Born-again Christians who view local religious rites as diabolical are intent on “sanitizing the culture,” a local expression used for bringing them into alignment with the Bible and into acquiescence with “international standards” of modernity.17 Moderate Christians who interpret the Bible in ways that legitimize and bolster African religions do the opposite. They spare no effort to preserve local cultural practices. Ubi Artist's civic monuments and the ambiguity surrounding their propinquity to shrines play a central role in these confrontations. The very adoption of cement as a medium of choice for sculptures that commemorate fertility priests is indicative of a push-back to Evangelical fervor, for does it not invite a subversive reading and disarm early Christian converts' construction of social difference and belittlement of indigenous religious sensibilities? Through their materiality alone, Ubi Artist's cement effigies are not only steadfast and vigilant, as I argued above, but they also deliberately “stand tall” to overcome the humiliation people experienced at the hand of early Christian converts and to combat the societies' marginalization in the global world.
USAGE AND MEANING
It remains to show that Ubi Artist's commemorative monuments are drenched in local religious signification and that the sculptures' association with divine authority is an important facet of the inalienable values they broadcast. As the contemporary population's religious disparity calls for indeterminate artistic expression, references to the cement statues' local religious meanings are necessarily veiled, but they abound.
In fact, the capacity to unite the deeply divided population behind a shared vision of the future via the commemorative sculptures depends upon the latter's dissociation from the sacred shrine architecture. In practice, as long as priests refrain from sacrificing to and openly invoking spirits at the civic sites, Pentecostals ignore the spiritual web that is nevertheless spun around these modern artworks.18 Thus, while the sacred Ogbinon masquerade's show of respect for the historic town leader in Adim passed without incident, outright sacrifices made at the base of a concrete sculpture of an early female town leader in Ugep precipitated a year-long crisis.
In 2010, as I described elsewhere (Salami 2013), Pentecostals demolished a cement sculpture of Ugep's patron deity, Mma Esekpa, a 2005 work by Ubi Artist's apprentice Ben Arikpo. It had been integrated into the town's most important fertility shrine, the Odjokobi yose, and as such was the object of prayer, libations, and animal sacrifices. The iconoclasm clearly communicated that to Pentecostals such overt “idolatry” was intolerable (cf. Gell 1998:67). A year later, in 2011, the town leader responded to this incident by commissioning a replacement sculpture for the shrine, but not without ordering a town congress. Incidentally, the latter was staged around Ubi Artist's commemorative sculpture of Obol Obu (Fig. 16). During his public address, the town leader assured the population that the Mma Esekpa sculpture was to be understood as a purely secular artwork whose only purpose was to honor a historical personage. He compared the work to commemorative monuments of national leaders. Ben Enwonwu's Portrait of Nnamdi Azikiwe in Onitsha was one of the town leader's examples. Clearly, the need to circumvent open conflict between the society's various religious factions sometimes necessitates prevarication, for within a week of the public address, Ugep's priests liberally splashed the new Mma Esekpa sculpture with the blood of a sacrificial goat.
THE OBOL OBU MONUMENT
The preference for ambiguity finds support in the commemorative monument's location. Because of their proximity to the palaces, many of Ubi Artist's sculptures stand near important shrines; the religious activities surrounding them can thus easily be construed to be coincidental. The statue of Obol Obu in Ugep is a good example. The sculpture is situated on a traffic roundabout. The entrance to the palace grounds, Ugep's main performance arena, is located just across the street. The monument is therefore positioned in the vicinity of the Odjokobi yose and the cemetery of all former town leaders, the hub of priests' year-round ritual activities. A processional route links these pivotal sites to all other shrines in town. Movement along this path, which sometimes involves the transport of ritual implements from one sacred site to another, is tightly scripted and specific to ceremonies (Fig. 17). Variations—for example, time of day, inclusions and exclusions, degree of formality, sound levels, etc.—foreground the power generated by specific clan alliances and recall particular histories. The Obol Obu monument stands smack in the middle of this spiritual web. As a result, there is not a ritual performance in town—be it priests' single-file processions, their elaborate festival performances, masquerades' outings, title holders' installations, or dance troupes' parades—that does not pass by this sculpture. Nothing escapes Obol Obu's surveillance.
Two ceremonies illustrate how the Obol Obu statue is only obliquely drawn into religious signification. A fertility rite, the “Last Sacrifice,” takes place on the palace grounds on the main day of the festival, but involves a short procession that leads the Okpebili to carry a talisman past the Obol Obu statue (Fig. 18). Festival celebrants line up around the base of the commemorative monument. They watch as the priest flamboyantly zigzags across the pavement. He stabs the air with a sword to destroy witches—thought to be one cause of sterility—and swings a contraption made of a gourd, a yellow palm frond, an egg, and a live chick back and forth so as to expose the bystanders to the talisman's blessing. The Okpebili is merely on route to the palace grounds; purportedly, the Obol Obu statue has nothing to do with this rite.
Further, throughout the year, hearses returning from the morgue in Calabar and on their way to Christian churches, accompanied by hundreds of motorcyclists who honk their horns, stop in the same spot. For this literally breathtaking funerary ceremony, called the “Blessing of the Corpse,” the priests and a troupe of female praise singers line the street in front of the commemorative monument. The Okpebili prays and pours a libation on the pavement in front of the hearse, but does not mention Obol Obu among the soothsayers, heroes, and heroines to whom the deceased is entrusted. Again, the site is said to be incidental, a mere convenience; it provides ample space for the ceremony and permits use of the nearby palace as a staging ground. Today, the dead being blessed there may be thought to ascend to a Christian heaven, but, in combination, these two seemingly disparate rituals, one a fertility rite, the other a funerary ceremony, suggest a concern with regeneration and reincarnation and thus with a much deeper belief in a cyclical conception of existence.
Although ostensibly a purely secular monument, the Okpebili related that until the mid-1960s, “a forest of tall trees stood where the effigy of [Obol Obu] now stands … There was a fertility shrine there which was used to cure barrenness. You would see sacrifices lying about, all around it.”19 In the past, during times of trouble, the priest also undertook several journeys to Akpa to obtain soil from Yakurr's homeland. To purify the community, it was sprinkled “all over the playground, over the [Obol Obu] statue.”20 Surely the concomitant ritual treatment of the cement sculpture and the site of the earlier fertility shrine indicates that the statue of Obol Obu retains sacred connotations. Moreover, its location at an intersection—six roads and the town's four original wards converge there—is suggestive of the “crossroads,” a classic West and Central African symbol of cyclical continuity, the gateway to the transcendental realm (Thompson 1983).
Indeterminate expression further takes the form of performed allusions to the sculpted ancestors' continued sentience. During their stately parade onto the festival grounds on the main day of the new yam celebrations, the traditional rulers in several towns approach Ubi Artist's sculptures as two single-file processions.21 The priests then merge into a single queue in front of these sculptures, visually incorporating the commemorated ancestors in their lineups (Fig. 19). Similarly, during the climax of the 2001 festival, several Ekoi dancers, one by one, mounted the tiered platform of Idomi's civic monument in the same manner in which they sometimes dance on the top of the heaps of boulders that constitute shrines. Depending on one's sightlines, the Ekoi dancers visually merged with the statues, giving me the impression that the revered ancestor had come back to life (Fig. 20).
The ambiguity spun around the commemorative sculptures does more than negotiate diametrically opposed ideologies; it is mindful of the fact that people assume fluid identities in response to postcolonial society's inherent contradictions. Even born-again Christians cannot escape the practice of honoring and calling on ancestors. Pouring libations, for example, is fundamentally a social construct. As the primary means by which people in these societies establish their claim to land and a political voice, it is wrapped up in their identity (Fenton 2012:79–81). Pentecostals thus often state that they deliberately avoid all contact with the priests, because, as Sarah Eteng Osoku explained, “they are moving with evil spirits, those satanic things that might follow you into your house.”22 But the same people also attend the priests' ritual performances, because, as Okoi Ebri Eyowa added, they “like this kind of culture; it makes you feel fine.”23 It is needless to say that Christians with traditionalist leanings similarly surround the commemorative sculptures when the same serve as backdrops for paramilitary parades, as settings for the arrival of the governor's motorcade, or as stages for the presentation of farming prizes and academic achievement awards.
An aspect of the “conflicted, transcultural history of colonialism” (Thomas 1991:26), then, is that deeply held cultural sentiments, many of which are inextricably intertwined with local religious beliefs, do not disappear just because they cannot be reconciled with Western definitions of modernity or Christian doctrine. People find new, less conspicuous ways to express them. In the Middle Cross River region, one channel for reaffirming inalienable values has been the societies' adoption of royal pomp. Emblazoned on some sculptures' plaques and enacted upon the contemporary town leaders through performance, the culture's monarchical façade expresses a core tenet of the indigenous society, the notion that political leadership must be divinely sanctioned.
Divine kingship has deep roots in the region's small-scale village republics (de Heusch 1997:213, Afigbo 1996:10).24 Adopting the monarchical pomp of the former British colonizer has kept the local rulers “within the bounds of mystical sanctions” (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940:18), even for Pentecostals, while also rectifying a “sense of racial humiliation” left over from the colonial period (Mazrui 1967:37). This interfaith divine sanction gives the traditional rulers locally a legitimacy that Nigeria's politicians and world leaders lack (cf. Chabal and Daloz 1999:66). From an egalitarian perspective, the Obol Okona Daniel Etowa Arikpo explained, the town leaders are on a par with (if not superior to) global leaders and have an incontrovertible right to “participate in the decision making in whatever other countries are doing.”25 Ekpe leader Tata Eteng Ikpi added, “The terms of patriclans and matriclans and the traditions are non-negotiable!”26 On this point, the town leaders will not budge.
Ubi Artist's commemorative monuments are essentially updated war shrines that encapsulate people's shared vision of the future, one that entails their full membership in the contemporary global world. The cement sculptures do not merely depict traditional rulers who are able to hold their own on a world stage; they created the possibility of imagining them. The discourse on materiality, which argues that the structuring of the social world and the material world are completely “enmeshed in a process of mutual constitution” (Richard 2010:7), suggests this. The local discourse on cement, which foregrounds the medium's steadfastness, resilience to catastrophe and capacity to obliterate degradation, underscores it.
This study draws on field research conducted between June 1998 and September 2011. I am grateful to my collaborators in Nigeria and thank the following institutions for their generous support: The University of Iowa, the US Department of Education, the Smithsonian Institution, the Sainsbury Research Unit (University of East Anglia) and the West African Research Association (WARA). I am further indebted to the anonymous reviewers, whose comments on an earlier draft of this work were very helpful.
The masquerade bears an association with the region's esoteric Water Society, but on this occasion, performed on behalf of the Begot Hunter Society.
Where figurative sculptures have been retained, they are kept hidden in indoor sanctuaries throughout most of the year, but are set on top of the boulders on special occasions. Most of these sculptures were carved from wood (see Nicklin 1999), but in some towns (e.g., in Ugep and in Assiga) people incorporated works associated with the Lower Niger Bronze Industry into their shrines.
Speaking of the local culture in general, John Ofem, a former member of the Yakurr Local Government Council, explained, “The people are talking to the whole world; there is something here that the whole world must come and see” (John Ofem, interview with author, August 13, 2011).
The twelve towns are: Adim, Akpet Central, Assiga Old Town, Ekori, Idomi, Igbo-Imabana, Mkpani, Nko, Obubra, Oderege, Okorokpana and Ugep. For my earlier discussion of the sculpture in Ugep see Salami 2013.
Yakurr communities fought wars in 1986 (Mkpani–Ugep), 1991 (Idomi–Abini), 1992 (Idomi–Ugep) and in 1996 (Ugep–Adim). In 2002, war broke out in Apiapum, Obubra LGA.
This account is based on interviews I conducted with Ubi Artist in July 1999; on September 26, 2001; October 24, 2001; and March 28, 2002.
Cornelius Ikpi Edet, interview with author, December 1, 2001.
Ubi Eteng Eno, interview with author, October 24, 2001.
Ubi Okoi, interview with author, August 4, 1998.
Steven Obeten, interview with author, December 19, 2001.
Ubi Eteng Eno, interview with author, October 24, 2001.
Ikpi Ubi Ofem, interview with author, October 16, 2001.
Patricia Ujong Oden, interview with author. March 29, 2002.
Oval of Assiga, interview with author, March 20, 2002.
Ikpi Ubi Ofem, interview with author, October 16, 2001.
Ubi Artist, interview with author, March 28, 2002.
Cornelius Ikpi Edet, letter to author, March 10, 2005.
I draw on Goffman's idea of a “veneer of consensus” (Goffman 1959), but the consensus building involved is also a quintessential tenet of the indigenous societies' egalitarian constitutions.
Cornelius Ikpi Edet, interview with author, October 5, 2001.
Cornelius Ikpi Edet, interview with author, August 5, 2001.
In Ugep and Idomi this has been done since at least the early 1990s.
Sarah Eteng Osoku, interview with author, January 5, 2002.
Okoi Ebri Eyowa, interview with author, January 5, 2002.
I deconstruct the more intricate local meaning of divine kingship in an upcoming book manuscript.
Daniel Etowa Arikpo, interview with author, July 20, 2011.
Tata Eteng Ikpi, interview with author, July 30, 2011.