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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Cross River Creoles: Skin-Covered Art from the Era of the Slave Trade
by Smalligan, Laura Marlena, Ph.D., Yale University, 2011, 239; 3467907
Abstract (Summary)

The scramble for power that characterized the early colonial era in Africa was a competition among not only European nation-states, but also Africa's own merchants and rulers who desperately sought to maintain their sovereignty. This dissertation is an inquiry into how a particular group of wealthy Africans—nineteenth-century merchants from the Cross River region of Nigeria—utilized skin-covered sculptures representing the decapitated heads of men and women to assert their political authority. It will argue that these skin-covered heads are inextricably linked to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, abolition, and the economic and social change that followed; increased British involvement in the internal affairs of Africans; and finally colonialism itself. This dissertation argues that these works of art, often understood to be pre-modern and "traditional," were influenced by the very ideas of modernity that were circulating elsewhere in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: questions of freedom, slavery, violence, power, and authority.

The first chapter introduces the city of Calabar, the center of skin-covered art in the Cross River region of Nigeria and the home of Ekpe, an organization of law-making merchants that facilitated trans-Atlantic trade and ensured stability in an otherwise stateless region.

Chapter two looks at the period immediately following 1767, when the Ekpe legal society became prominent. At this point in history, these skin-covered heads—to the extent we can speculate that they existed, since none from this era are extant—functioned as objects of terror, replications of heads of decapitated slaves that were utilized by Ekpe to evoke fear and reinforce its authority over the region.

Chapter three examines the period following British abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, when the abrupt end of the trade in slaves plunged Calabar into a recession in which the wealthy merchants of Ekpe lost the most. In this period these skin-covered heads became objects of wealth, symbols of conspicuous consumption utilized to assert the grandiosity and privilege of Ekpe when that very privilege and wealth was under threat.

Chapter four begins in 1846, when British administrators and Christian missionaries first settled in Calabar, and when Ekpe began to sense that colonialism was on the horizon. During this period these works of art became objects of statehood, intended less to represent the power of Ekpe over the enslaved than to symbolize Ekpe's monopoly of violence and its authority over Calabar as the British interfered in the city's politics. These works of art became, in this era, objects of political authority that declared Ekpe's control of the land as well as the independence of Calabar's people.

Finally, chapter five considers how these objects shifted yet again in meaning when colonialism was established in 1885. In the early years of colonialism these works of art became objects of resistance that contained subtle anti-colonial meaning and served to create an imagined community that established a foundation for nationhood.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Thompson, Robert Farris
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 72/10, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: African history, Art history, Sub Saharan Africa Studies
Keywords: Abolition, Cross River, Nigeria, Resistance, Skin-covered art, Slavery, Violence
Publication Number: 3467907
ISBN: 978-1-124-80588-7
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