Chief Olorogun Vincent Ahwi (Osu IV) Sou R’Urhobo, Lagos (third from left); Foss’ assistant, Mary Mclaughli; Prof. J.P. Clark; Prof. Perkins Foss and Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya, with members of Atamu Urhobo Social Club during the presentation… in Lagos
From the U.S. came 50 years of documenting the art and culture of Urhobo, a prominent ethnic group in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. On its way to Accra, Ghana, for presentation to an international audience, the rarely seen Urhobo archival pictures, film and texts made a stop-over in Lagos, courtesy of it’s holder and researcher, Prof. Perkins Foss, a retired academic from Pensylvania State University, U.S.
A familiar name to the community of Nigerian art and culture, Foss served as an assistant to colonial era Head of Antiquity, Kenneth C Murray. Foss’ boss was renowned for his efforts in the establishment of what would later be the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos.
For followers of Urhobo culture and its promotion, at least within research context, Foss is an ‘ambassador,’ whose passion for the subject has been well documented. In fact, the American speaks a bit of Urhobo language as an extension of his research aesthetics.
In 2009, when he was in Nigeria for the Ford Foundation intervention project of rehabilitating the Onikan museum, he disclosed, during a chat, the volume of Urhobo collection in his possession. But he wasn’t exactly sure what to do with the archival works. Eight years after, and back in Lagos, there seems to be a clear direction of how to dispense the collection in public’s interest.
“Pensylvania State University has been supporting my work on Urhobo culture in the past five years,” Foss told The Guardian me ahead of his presentation to a select Urhobo community at Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Harmattan Gallery, Papa Ajao, Lagos.
The university, he said, had asked a fellow American, Mary Mclaughli to assist him with logistics. Foss was in Nigeria with Mclaughli during the presentation, which had Onobrakpeya, Prof. J.P. Clark and Chief Olorogun Vincent Ahwi (Osu IV) Sou R’Urhobo, Lagos, among others in attendance.
Recalling the situation that inspired his documentation of Urhobo art and culture, Foss said it started when he and Murray went to Urhoboland, noting, “Having done a lot on Yoruba and Igbo culture, I realised the need to also do something on Urhobo heritage.”
With a native guide in Chief T E A Salubi, the documentation, he said, started from 1967 to 1970. Salubi, he estimated, “died in the early 70s.”
However, in an age of info-tech, the 50-year-old collections by Foss would be inaccessible if not converted to contemporary compliance format. “I have audios in analogue that need to be transferred into digital format.”
For the first time since Foss started collecting the Urhobo pictures, texts and sounds, the body of work would be getting a major international presentation this week at the 17th Triennial Arts Councils of African Studies Association (ACASA), which is currently ongoing in Accra, Ghana. Interestingly too, ACASA is holding its event for the first time this year outside its U.S. base. The association is known for assisting African scholars in the U.S. on research in different areas of the arts.
The Lagos presentation last Sunday took off with the traditional breaking of kola nuts, courtesy of the Urhobo elders present. And also in Urhobo tradition, Foss opened the event by speaking in the people ‘s dialect. He stated, “I am dedicating this presentation to Prof. Clark.” And, why not? He recalled meeting Clark in 1972, and commended how the renowned poet was “guiding people about what is right and wrong.” He also recognised Onobrakpeya in his tribute before his presentation started fully.
FOSS’ presentation opened with the theme ‘50 Years of Research Among Urhobo and Neighbouring Groups in the Niger River Delta.’ The presentation listed 2,000 slides, including images from 1971. The breakdown: prints of 1,500 in volume of documents; 10 hours of video, including edited and unedited; four hours of 16mm film as well as 15 hours of audio tapes.
Also presented were highlights of manuscripts and correspondences such as a letter from former Director of National Museum, Ekpo Eyo, dated 1975, about some objects in transit, a picture of Omotoke, popular among Urhobo people and seen in 1972 and a sculpture of Urhobo origin that Foss likens to Nok terracotta of 5,000 BC, Igbo Ukwu and Yoruba’s Ori-olokun.
For those interested in antiquity records of colonial era Urhoboland or Nigeria in general, Foss is perhaps the right person to see just in case such information are not available at the National Archive, Abuja. He said such materials include “Field notes of about 56 volumes.”
However, the process of digital archiving seemed to have started as he showed a masquerade,
Iphri, in performance, dated July 1972 as a 23-second film converted from 16mm black and white celluloid. He concluded the presentation with an image from catalogue of a 2004-2006 Urhobo art exhibition organised in the U.S.
“Very fascinating,” Clark enthused. “I am very impressed.” His commendation of Foss’ Urhobo research and collection was built on what he thought was a shift from the regular, noting, “Scholarship in Nigeria focuses largely on majority tribes. At the Institute of African Studies, in 1963, (University of Ibadan) the emphsis was on majority tribes.” He specifically singled out Foss: “You came later focusing Urhobo art and culture for 50 years, all preserved; it is highly commendable.”
As commendable as Foss’ work is, it also echoes the fact that most important cultural relics of Africans are outside the continent. “This is a treasure that we would like to have here,” Clark said. He also expressed concern about the preservation of his own work “Right now, I have a challenge of where to house my materials which are perishable” suggesting collaboration with Pensylvania University and another from Nigeria in future preservation project.
“It’s not impossible to have such collaboration,” Foss assured.
While speaking on the lesson to glean from what is also known as The Perkins Foss Paper, Onobrakpeya noted the importance of higher institutions of learning in scholarly research. He, however, argued that as individuals there is so much to do as well.
“For example, I built a family tree that people found useful” and urged “every Urhobo man to do something individually to preserve our culture.”
The Urhobo leader in Lagos also spoke on documentation as a crucial part if development. “Even as an accountant, I know the importance of documentation,” Vincent Ahwi argue.