Anna Craven has generously shared her knowledge of Afo/Eloyi1 art and history based in her 1969–1970 collecting activities and documentation for the National Museum at Jos, opened by Bernard Fagg in 1952. The style her contribution takes is in the form of an ethnographic report, rather than the typical African Arts article which offers description and commentary on a particular artist or group of artists and their practice. The advantage of the author's approach is that it is “data-heavy” but the disadvantage is that it is, intentionally, “interpretation-light.” Thus these remarks are meant to raise some of the issues which a more interpretive reading would reveal.
ON MIGRATION. We are now fairly certain that, origin legends to the contrary, most Nigerian migrations were usually over very short distances. The hard-core evidence comes from research in two kinds of sources, language and genetic markers (i.e., the prevalence of particular blood groups). The Yoruba did not come from Egypt or Mecca, nor the Igbo from Israel! (See Isichei 1983, and many others.) Thus it is probably true that the Afo were a part of the Apá/Kwararafa federation of small states in the middle Benue region, which only required that they move slightly westward when the federation broke up in the seventeenth century. But the Kanuri/Beriberi connection, and the whole “son of male, son of female” theme reported here is found all over Nigeria, especially in Apá narratives, and is much more likely to be a so-called mythical charter (like the sons of Oduduwa founding separate kingdoms). The fact that the Afo language is consistent with their present Benue Valley location and not related to Kanuri supports that conclusion. Alternatively, the relationship could have been local, that is, with the Kanuri merchants close to the Benue who founded the town of Lafia in the eighteenth century, rather than in their home area further north.
FACIAL MARKINGS. Using facial marks to argue a connection between Afo (Kakanda in Temple) and Kanuri is a teleological argument, however popular it may be, particularly with Western art dealers. The same marks are found on Igala royal masks south of the Benue, and conversely, some of the numerous maternities attributed to the Afo have rather different marks.
EVALUATING ORAL EVIDENCE. The interview with the late Emir of Nasarawa in 1969, contains fascinating material on the Jukun-Afo historical connection as well as the crossing-the-Benue story for an important ritual figure, a process I have written about (2011b:49–53). However, it was said to be an earthen figure, which on the face of it seems very unlikely as these were usually modeled in place within their own shrines and would be difficult if not impossible to transport long distances.
I suggest that parts of the story are undoubtedly true but that it may represent a conflation of two different narratives on the part of the storyteller, one involving an earth shrine figure being stolen and the other a carved maternity figure (which were also kept in shrines when not in ritual use) which the Emir, Alhaji Idris, carried to Wukari for validation.2 What matters more than the details here is the general observation that shrine figures were moved about through wars and other disturbances, whether local as in this case, or at the time of the Fulani jihad against the Benue in the mid to late nineteenth century. This is in keeping with the centrality of the shrine and its contents to the identity and well-being of the community.3 The other important point to draw from the story is the Afo-Jukun historical connection still being honored symbolically in the twentieth century, though Jukun and Abakwariga (non-Muslim Hausa) identities are usually collapsed in these accounts since the latter were the Jukuns’ ritual specialists.
AN ARGUMENT FOR A REGIONAL GENRE. The most important art historical point to be drawn from this discussion is the confirmation of the north-south connection across the Benue River at times of danger and uncertainty. We know from the colonial archives (Kasfir 2011b; see also Kasfir 1979) that Agatu district in Idoma Division, located directly south of Afo villages on the opposite bank, was the most heterogeneous in Idoma. Conversely, there are scattered Idoma settlements on the corresponding north side of the river. These reports of Agatu also describe both Afo and Idoma crossing and recrossing the Benue there. It makes me wonder whether another source of masks and figures for the southern Afo/Eloyi could have been from Idoma or Agatu—or even Igala!
It is logical to assume, since we know from oral evidence that people took the contents of their shrines with them when they moved location, that Afo and Idoma shrine figures existed proximally in this region and were in some sense a merged, or at least interdigitated, genre.
ON SOUTHERN VERSUS NORTHERN AFO VILLAGES. This is perhaps the most crucial information in the report which supports this Afo-Idoma interconnectedness. Craven reveals that the northern villages were considered the creative source for indigenous sculpture, while in the south near the Benue, people commissioned their masks and figures from there or from “other groups.” All of this fits the model of southern Afo and northern Idoma being an ethnic, linguistic, and stylistic nexus, so that the Benue functions here not as a barrier but as a bridge.
ON THE CLOTH MASQUERADE ODADU. Both its photograph and description are broadly cognate with the Abakwariga Ashama masquerade collected ca. 1931 by C.K. Meek for the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (Kasfir 2011a:107, pl. 3.10) and also the Alago version photographed by Arnold Rubin in 1971 (Kasfir 2011a:107, pl. 3.9), all of which point toward a common origin within the former Apá federation. I am not sure what the blacksmith connection means but it could be that smiths in Afo villages were itinerant and originally Alago or Hausa/Abakwariga. The entire “tall ghost” cloth genre is also morphologically related to the more elaborate ancestral Idoma Alekwuafia masquerades south of the Benue and also to the Igala Egwuafia. However its performance style as the author describes it is quite different.
ON THE MASQUERADE WHICH GUARDS SHRINES. “In Kana the masquerade associated with the onzo shrine was no longer brought out because the mask had been sold and had not yet been replaced.” In 1974 I photographed such a shrine in Agwada village which, unlike the other shrines I had seen, contained a life-size seated figure wearing a complete knitted masquerade ensemble. Other family shrines depicted a composite animal but this seemed the sculpted equivalent of the guardian masquerade itself. Was this the embodiment of a masked spirit, or the shrine's literal guardian, or both? (Figs. 1–2).
While known in the art literature as Afo (their Hausa name), Craven, following Arnold Rubin, prefers the indigenous ethnonym Eloyi. In my own visit there in 1974, I was told that only one village still used the name Eloyi, the rest having settled on the Hausa name for themselves.
I personally have photographed a lifesize Egba shrine figure in Agwada village in 1974 which was completely clothed in a knitted masquerade costume so that it was not possible to tell if it was carved or modeled (see Kasfir 1984).
In Idoma the smallest social unit beyond the family itself consists of ikpa-aje (“those who worship at the same earth shrine”).