A new show at the Fowler Museum at UCLA features 38 objects from the British Empire Exhibition staged almost a century ago in the London suburb of Wembley to showcase Britain’s wealth and supremacy, and stimulate trade with and among its various colonies.

The pieces in "On Display in the Walled City: Nigeria at the British Empire Exhibition, 1924–1925," were originally displayed in the exhibition's Nigerian Pavilion, and were acquired by the British pharmaceutical entrepreneur and global art collector Sir Henry Wellcome in 1925 and donated to the Fowler by the Wellcome Trust between 1965–67.

The British Empire Exhibition sprawled over a vast fairground that included pavilions devoted to natural resources, products and people from 55 of the empire's 58 colonies, as well as a working replica of a coalmine, a lake, an amusement park, gardens and restaurants. Electric buses and light rail transported some 27 million visitors through the park over the course of the exhibition's two-year run. Among the most popular attractions was the “Walled City,” containing the pavilions of the West African colonies of Nigeria, Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) and Sierra Leone.

The Fowler exhibition presents some key objects from those pavilions, including a model of a royal altar from the Kingdom of Benin; ritual and prestige objects made by Yoruba, Igbo, Fulani and Kanuri artists; and the doors to living quarters of African artists brought to demonstrate their skills to the exhibition visitors. "On Display in the Walled City" presents the Fowler’s recent research on the Wellcome Collection and offers new insights into the British colonial enterprise.

Nigerian arts on display

"On Display in the Walled City" features works in wood, metal, beadwork and leather. One key installation is a model of a royal altar from the Kingdom of Benin. Such altars reinforced the legitimacy of the recently departed oba (king) and celebrated the long line of rulers who preceded him. The British Punitive Expedition of 1897 had looted many such altars in Benin, sending carved ivory tusks, cast bronze heads and plaques, and other components to London, to be sold or kept in public museums. Subsequent altars erected in Benin perished through fire and looting, but the replica altar commissioned for the Nigerian Pavilion was purchased by Sir Henry Wellcome at the close of the exhibition. The Fowler show elucidates the complex history of this royal installation.

Nigerian artists at the British Empire Exhibition

The Nigerian Pavilion “transported” visitors to the colony though design elements inspired by Nigerian architecture, film shot on location, and objects placed on show. Visitors to the pavilion could also watch Nigerian artists at work. More than 20 men, women, and children, brought to the Exhibition, lived in the “Walled City” alongside participants from the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone, demonstrating their skills to the attending public. 

Many of the artists’ names are known, including Audu Mai Alijeta, the carver of three gourds on view at the Fowler. One gourd, likely engraved for European visitors to the exhibition features British motorcars, the Union Jack flag, colonial troops, and a meeting between Nigerian and British women. This decoration would have been exotic yet recognizable to urban British viewers. Engraved tubular gourds (zungeru) depict Nigerian experiences colored by the British colonial presence, including such scenes as a British man carried in a palanquin; colonial troops; well-dressed Hausa musicians; women identifiable as Fulani by their hairstyles; and a ballerina. Another gourd contains geometric designs typical of Hausa and Fulani styles, which has helped Fowler curators to confirm Alijeta’s hometown of Jalingo in Gongola state, which is Taraba state today.

Living at the British Empire Exhibition

The Nigerians, Ghanaians and Sierra Leoneans brought to the exhibition stayed in a section called the “Native Village” within the “Walled City.” The exhibition organizers emphasized that the West African artists should to be treated as guests, but in reality their freedom of movement was restricted, as was their choice of dress. The public was prohibited from entering the artists’ living quarters, yet regularly intruded into these private spaces. The struggle for privacy inside the “Walled City” is made evident by the doors on view at the Fowler, which still bear the original slips of paper declaring: “Strictly Private, No Admittance” and “Strictly Private Room.” At the close of the exhibition’s 1925 season, Sir Henry Wellcome acquired not only a selection of art objects showcased in the Nigerian Pavilion, but also many of the doors to the living quarters of the West Africans. The wood for these doors had been imported from West Africa; their construction and carving was completed at Wembley.

Studying the Wellcome collection

Wellcome had acquired more than 1 million objects by the time he died in 1936 at the age of 83. The trust overseeing his collection decided to give away the entirety of its ethnographic holdings in a series of dispersals starting in the 1940s, including the donation of approximately 30,000 objects to UCLA between 1965 and 1967.

In January 2019, the Fowler was awarded a $600,000 grant by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to conduct interdisciplinary research on a subset of the museum's African artworks from the Wellcome Trust donation. The 40-month project includes funding for a full-time Mellon Curatorial Fellow and a full-time Mellon Conservation Fellow who will pursue collaborative curatorial, conservation and archival investigations. “On Display in the Walled City” showcases the first discoveries to emerge from the Mellon project. By reconstructing detailed histories of objects from the Wellcome Collection, the Fowler will be able to address questions faced by museums around the world, which seek to understand more fully their holdings, shed light on the lives of their objects, and reflect on their responsibilities to communities of origin.

This exhibition is organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA and is curated by Erica Jones, associate curator of African Arts.