- Commentary on "The Art and Material Culture of the Eloyi (Afo) People, Nigeria 1969/70" by Anna Craven
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...