Nigerian Arts Revisited

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The Barbier-Mueller Museum invited the anthropologist Nigel Barley, a former curator at the British Museum, to take a look at the museum’s Nigerian collection, which came into being over more than a hundred years, thanks to the personal and informed “eye” of the collectors Josef Mueller and Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller. Without aspiring to cover exhaustively the cultural production of Nigeria across the two millennia of its history, the Barbier-Mueller collection is very rich in several respects. Faithful to chronological continuity, it provides a sample of the production of the major cultural centers of Nigeria, shedding light on archaeological pieces from Nok, Katsina, and Sokoto, works from Ife and the kingdom of Benin, and Yoruba, Ijo, and Igbo objects, as well as items from the Cross River and the Benue Valley. By virtue of their rarity, certain pieces in the collection constitute “monuments” of African art. Others, by their emblematic force, are among its great “classics.” The exhibition sets out to present these objects, including several displayed here for the first time, highlighting their aesthetic quality even while explaining, by means of the catalogue, the ethnographic context of their production and use. Nigel Barley provides new angles of approach for considering, understanding, and perhaps even better appreciating the art of Nigeria.


Nigel Barley taught anthropology at University College London before joining the British Museum as an Assistant Keeper in the Ethnography Department. He remained there for some twenty years with special responsibility for West Africa and Indonesia and conducted fieldwork in Cameroon, Nigeria, Morocco, Ghana, Japan and Indonesia. He is currently a writer and divides his time between England and Indonesia. His best-known work is probably The Innocent Anthropologist, while his most recent is Requiescat: A Cat's Life at the British Museum.