When changes in British trade policy upended the political structure of royal descent in the river delta of southern Nigeria, it opened the door for liberated slaves in the area to establish themselves as merchants. Some were able to accrue significant wealth and power, rising to preside over trading houses known as “canoe houses”—structures named for the long canon-mounted boats that traders used to navigate Nigeria’s vast maze of tributaries, swamps, and lagoons. The men who ran these canoe houses were called amanyana-pu —“owners of the land” or “kings.” Screens like this one were made to memorialize and facilitate communion with amanyana-pu who had died; the act of honoring the spirits of amanyana-pu past lent legitimacy to amanyana-pu present.
Constructed using the joinery methods of ship carpenters, this altar screen features a series of figures arranged in a heirarchial order similar to the poses struck in formal photographs of amanyana-pu and their company men. The central figure, the amanyanabo (singular for amanyana-pu), dons a top hat and carries a walking stick, both tightly restricted articles of fashion used to signify his tremendous wealth and power. While the work clearly reflects popular European practices and goods of the time, the head-on, penetrating gaze of the figures and their flat, geometric forms are distinctly Kalabari Ijo in style.
Take a closer look at Ancestral Altar Screen (Duein Fubara).