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ART : REGAL AFRICA : In Fullerton, Far From the 'Dark Continent,' Princely Artifacts Open Some Eyes

February 20, 1992|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

Royalty watchers in America love to fret over the marriage of Chuck and Di, and worry whether Fergie is spending enough time with the kids.

Despite all the attention paid British princes and princesses, however, there are places--not normally associated with royalty--where the royal lineage goes back much further than the House of Windsor. "West African Kingdoms: Ritual and Royalty," the current exhibit at Cal State Fullerton's Museum of Anthropology, displays artifacts and photographs from three kingdoms: the Yoruba, the Asante and the Bini.

"It's not really the 'Dark Continent,' " said Aileen Baron, an anthropology professor who coordinated the student-organized exhibit. "It's a high culture, and we wanted to be able to show that in this exhibit."

Most of the Bini artifacts on display, as well as the large color photographs on the wall of the converted classroom, come from the collection of Joseph Nevadomsky, the latest addition to Fullerton's anthropology staff.

Nevadomsky lived in Nigeria for two years in the mid-'60s as a member of the Peace Corps; in 1973, after stints in India and Trinidad, he returned to Nigeria and stayed until 1989. While there, he taught in universities in Lagos, the capital, and Benin City, and also conducted research on religion and ritual.

In '78 and '79, he recorded in photographs the elaborate rituals attending the installation of a new oba, or king, in the ancient city of Benin. Oba Erediauwa is the latest in a royal dynasty that can be traced. Some of these photos, and photos of other Bini ceremonies, are on display in Fullerton.

African artworks are often stereotyped as crude and primitive, but Benin has been producing some of the world's finest bronzes since the 15th Century--some examples of which have fetched more than $2 million at auction.

The craftsmanship "compares favorably with some of the art works of Europe's own antiquity," Nevadomsky says. In fact, he adds, "they were flowering at the very time that Europe was going through the Dark Ages."

Reproductions of some of these pieces are displayed in Fullerton, as are actual shrine pieces. There are also Bini and Yoruba wood sculptures, and cloth and wooden stools from the Asante region of Ghana.

Some of Africa's oldest royal families survive as well as the craft traditions have. Not only have some of these dynasties remained intact through the upheavals of the world slave trade and colonialism, some also continue to play important roles in African society, Nevadomsky says. Their role has been largely informal until now, but that is changing as a democracy movement begins to sweep Africa. What was seen as a divisive influence under some of the hard-line dictatorships is now seen as a potential stabilizing factor by some fledgling democracies.

Nigeria, which is undergoing a transition from military to civilian rule, is considering a two-house legislative system that would "incorporate traditional rulers into the decision-making process," Nevadomsky says.

Cal State Fullerton students organize all exhibits in the anthropology museum as class projects. Students selected the objects and designed the display, wrote catalogue essays and built a scale model of the royal palace in Benin, based on maps and photographs provided by Nevadomsky.

What: "West African Kingdoms: Ritual and Royalty."

When: Hours are 1 to 5 p.m. weekdays, 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Closed Saturdays. Ends Dec. 6.

Where: Cal State Fullerton Museum of Anthropology, Humanities Room 330.

Whereabouts: From the Orange (57) Freeway, take Nutwood Avenue west past Commonwealth Avenue and turn right into the university parking lot. Follow the signs to visitor parking (campus parking areas can be very crowded on weekdays).

Wherewithal: Admission is free.

Where to call: (714) 773-3977.

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